(RNS) — Until a few months ago, Kenneth Feinberg was blissfully unaware of the decades-long debate over sexuality that has roiled the United Methodist Church.
Now he may be the man to end it.
Feinberg, along with Rick Godfrey and Wendy Bloom of law firm Kirkland & Ellis, mediated the negotiations between 16 United Methodist bishops and leaders of advocacy groups that led to a proposal to split the global denomination.
That proposal, called the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, would allow conservatives within the church to form their own “traditionalist” Methodist denomination, taking their church properties and $25 million with them.
It's the latest proposal to resolve the long-running dispute over LGBTQ inclusion in one of America's largest Protestant denominations. At issue: whether “the practice of homosexuality" is "incompatible with Christian teaching." Traditionalists in the United States and abroad say yes, as does the denomination's rulebook. Progressives within the church say no.
A special session of the denomination's General Conference last year in St. Louis was supposed to end the debate. It ended up strengthening language in the denomination's rulebook barring LGBTQ United Methodists from ordination and marriage — a decision progressives vowed to oppose.
Enter Feinberg, who was asked by a friend to help find a way forward.
Feinberg, who is Jewish, said religion plays a role in his life morally and spiritually, and his beliefs motivated him to offer his services without charge.
“I thought that the church and what it stands for and its impact on the day-to-day lives of people was important and that we should step up and try and preserve that, which hopefully we've done,” he said.
Previously, Feinberg oversaw the federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, as well as compensation funds for victims of the Boston Marathon attacks; BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill; and the mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and at Virginia Tech.
The Rev. Tom Berlin, who represented centrist groups in the negotiations, told United Methodist News Service that help from such a high-profile mediator was “a sign that God is making a gracious provision to The United Methodist Church.” Others involved in the process described the mediator as keeping everybody at the table, helping them see possibilities "no one had seen or been prepared to admit" and defusing tense moments with "humor and hard truths."
The next step will be to bring the proposal to a vote this May at the regular General Conference meeting in Minneapolis.
Feinberg will be at that meeting of the denomination's global decision-making body if they want him to be, he said. He also plans to be part of a livestream discussion of the proposal that will be hosted Monday (Jan. 13) by the United Methodist News Service.
He spoke to Religion News Service about the ground rules he set for mediation, sticking points in United Methodists’ negotiations and what comes next.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How familiar were you with the United Methodist Church and its debates over sexuality when you were brought in?
Not familiar at all. Totally in the dark. I was brought in at the request of Rick Godfrey, a friend of mine, a very prominent lawyer at Kirkland and Ellis in Chicago, who is a member of the United Methodist Church. He called me and asked if I would make myself available to try and mediate a resolution of these disputes that threaten the very foundation of the church, and I told him I'd be glad to do it, I would do it pro bono, without compensation, in the public interest.
Why did you want to volunteer your services?
Well, it's very hard to say “no” to Rick Godfrey, first of all. I've known him for many years. But, beyond that, I just thought that it was important in contemporary America with all of the trouble we have now — social unrest and the division politically, cultural differences, et cetera — I thought it was in the public interest to preserve the integrity and the effectiveness of the church.
I thought it was a good example of an issue where I might be able to make a contribution in making sure that the church survived, was healthy, would move forward.
What ground rules did you set for mediation?
One, confidentiality. No leaks. Everything that we're discussing around the table as part of the mediation must remain sealed in that room. Everybody agreed, and confidentiality was maintained.
Two, make sure that the people around the table are the right people to mediate, that they have the credibility, the experience, the respect. That's important.
Three, make sure that those mediation participants, those individuals, speak for the various constituencies — the progressives, the centrists, the traditionalists. Make sure that these people have the authority to help us all get to “yes” in this process, that they can deliver.
It doesn't do any good if the wrong people are at the table, if they say, “Yep, we can do this,” and then they can't deliver their constituency.
Some United Methodists have criticized the lack of transparency in the process. Why was it important to keep the discussions confidential?
You want people to be candid in offering certain solutions that may or may not prevail. If people think that if we float an idea, it's going to appear in the newspaper the next day, they won't even float it. You want a mediation to promote candor, flexibility, creative ways to get agreement, and if people are fearful that they're going to read about what they have done the next day in the newspaper, they won't be candid, and the mediation is doomed to fail. So confidentiality has to trump transparency — at least at the outset.
Transparency is critical when you've reached an agreement and you've documented it and you put it in the form of a final protocol. That protocol must be widely disseminated. This is a document that is out there for public comment. I think that's important afterwards.
What was the biggest obstacle?
There were three. One, how does one go about actually restructuring the church? Who stays? Who leaves? Very important.
Two, governance. How do you implement an agreement? When do you vote — at General Conference? What's the vote — majority, two-thirds? What's the role of the local church?
And, three, finances. Who keeps what? What about the pension plan? What about local church property? What about real estate owned by the national church? What about Africa? What about Asia and Europe — property there? What are the financial implications of this?
I say the politics of restructuring, governance issues and financial issues were the three secular issues. At no time in this mediation was there any real discussion of doctrinal differences. That wasn't part of this. This was a secular mediation designed to define the future of the church.
How did the group decide more conservative “traditionalist” churches and conferences would leave when their beliefs recently were confirmed as the official beliefs of the denomination?
That was a decision that was reached by everybody around the table. It became apparent that that would be the result.
Is there a scenario in this protocol where traditionalist churches could leave and the post-separation United Methodist Church still might not change its existing language about sexuality?
That's a very good question. We'll see what happens. I tell everybody who is congratulating us about this unanimous protocol, "Well, that's all well and good, and congratulations is well deserved. Now, can the protocol be implemented by the thousands of constituents, the various organizations around the world? Not just in the United States — Africa, Asia, Europe?"
It remains to be seen. They were all represented in the mediation — African bishops, the Asian bishop from the Philippines, from Europe, from Sweden. We shall see. We shall see. I'm cautiously optimistic, but we shall see. You're right.
It does seem like there's a lot of trust involved from all sides for this to work.
I think that's right. Because everybody understood my opening mediation admonition, which was: What is the alternative? We'd better try very hard to get to “yes” unanimously because what will be the alternative? And everybody I think bought into that.
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified one of the partners at Kirkland & Ellis. The name has been corrected. RNS regrets the error.