Archives for July 2017

Closer to a Way Forward

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Commission Members at Work – COWF Photo

Last week the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward for the Church held its fourth face-to-face meeting. With nine total meetings scheduled, we are still not even halfway to the end of our process. We are aware that this process is taking more time and thought than some would like. It is not easy work.

The Commission is not trying to determine what the church should believe regarding sexual practice and marriage. We are concentrating on how we can and cannot live together. So time has not been spent on theological debate or trying to persuade others to change their position. We’ve done that for four decades, and going over the rationales for each position is unlikely to change anyone’s mind or create any kind of resolution.

The focus of this meeting was to solidify the foundation for a proposal by 1) coming to agreement about what we have in common as United Methodists, 2) summarizing what we have been hearing and learning from various parts of the church, and 3) identifying guiding principles for a way forward.

Our Core

We agreed on what forms our common core, the shared understanding of the Christian faith that helps describe our identity as United Methodists. We share a common desire to root our theology and actions in Scripture, even while we have sharp disagreements over how to interpret and apply the Bible to life. We share a Wesleyan theological heritage founded on:

  • Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds
  • Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith
  • The General Rules (do no harm, do good, attend upon all the ordinances of God/means of grace)
  • The Wesley Hymns

A key part of our identity that we are recovering is small group accountability and support. The class and band meetings of 18th century England have given way to modern spiritual formation groups, support groups, and accountability groups. We strongly believe in a life of Christian discipleship characterized by works of piety, mercy, and justice. Common liturgy, such as services of Baptism and Eucharist, link us together. And our church features bishops, an itinerant clergy to extend the mission of the church, and conferencing as our way of decision-making.

Of course, it is important to note that evangelicals, centrists, and progressives do not understand our core the same way. Differences of interpretation and application might mean that the core does not really unite us, but only serves as a starting point for development in separate directions.

What We Are Learning

We have received and processed significant feedback from North American caucus groups, general church agencies, seminary students, young adults, large church pastors, and United Methodist theologians and historians, among others. While this feedback has been helpful in understanding the issues and concerns that people bring to this conflict, the solutions people have proposed are in many ways contradictory and one-sided. As we narrow in on a proposal, we will need to try to accommodate the interests and concerns of all sections of the church, while knowing that we cannot fulfill anyone’s expectations completely. The ultimate proposal will be a compromise and blending of ideas and suggestions.

One major emphasis of this meeting was a deeper understanding of the distinct circumstances in the central conferences outside the United States. It is important to understand where these United Methodist brothers and sisters stand on the issues that divide us. But it is also important to understand their local situation. There are many countries in Africa and Eastern Europe that not only do not allow same-sex marriage, but actually have laws against homosexuality. Many of the European congregations and annual conferences are small and financially precarious.

Another segment during this meeting revolved around a greater understanding of our church pension situation. Some annual conferences have considerable unfunded liability for pensions earned by clergy prior to 1982. And as clergy and spouses live longer lives, that liability increases. Any proposal the Commission makes will have to address how that liability is cared for.

Principles for a Way Forward

In arriving at a proposed way forward, the Commission is dedicated to increasing the fruitfulness of the church and multiplying the Wesleyan witness in as many new contexts as possible. By allowing different groups to engage in ministry in different ways, we believe we can reach more people with the message of God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ. We are trying to come up with the simplest possible proposal, one that can pass the General Conference with broad support.

We are looking for a way forward that provides enough separation between the disagreeing parts of the church, so that no one is forced to support a type of ministry that he or she cannot in good conscience believe in. Given the events that have transpired since General Conference 2016, the amount of needed separation is probably greater now than it was then. I am hoping for a solution where those who can live together are able to do so, while those who cannot live together are not forced to do so.

I am gratified that the Commission has begun sketching the outlines of a proposed way forward. The next several months will be crucial in helping us arrive at a way to resolve the impasse in our denomination. The outlines will rapidly become clearer, and the details will start to fill in.

A Heart of Peace

Some have complained that the Commission’s meetings are not open to the press or public. While I am a proponent of open meetings in most circumstances, I firmly believe we on the Commission could not have accomplished what we have so far if the meetings had been open. (Full disclosure: my colleagues who work most closely with Good News magazine disagree with me and believe the meetings should be open.) The need to worry about how one comes across in a polarized church and society would stifle creativity and the ability to “try on” ideas. Because of the trust and goodwill we have toward one another within our group of 32 members, we are able to say things that we might not have said in a public venue, and we can work through a messy process toward a clear solution. I along with many Commission members look forward to sharing publicly as much information as we can as soon as we can in this process.

We are grateful for, encouraged by, and dependent upon the prayers of United Methodists around the globe. As we on the Commission do our work, we are constantly admonished to engage with one another with “a heart of peace.” I am hopeful that this same attitude of humility, peace, and love will characterize not only the deliberations of the Commission, but all the blogs and discussions and meetings that will help the church process our recommendations. Finding a positive and God-honoring way forward for our church depends on it.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

I encourage you to read the more detailed report issued by the Commission this week that can be found here.

Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: A Review

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

The study guide produced by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, entitled Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness, is designed to help congregations discuss the divisive and sensitive controversy over the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. It is drawn from an academic colloquy on this topic held at Candler Seminary in Atlanta in March of this year. It really does not engage substantively with the 24 papers that were presented at the colloquy, but does quote a few comments from the discussion times. The bulk of the substantive material from the colloquy is drawn from a paper by Dr. Charles M. Wood, who analyzes the churchwide study document Wonder, Love, and Praise: Sharing a Vision for the Church that was approved for study by the 2016 General Conference. For convenience, Wood’s paper is printed in the study guide as an appendix.

Chapter 1 describes the colloquy and why it was convened. It emphasizes our desire to bring to bear the intellectual resources of the Christian faith on our current dilemma. It describes the academic community as our “brain trust” that can help us think through the theological, biblical, and practical issues we face in our church. It invites us into a holy conversation, as we seek to understand the way that God has for our church to move forward.

Chapter 2 invites us to engage one another with our minds, not believing that persons who disagree with us are ignorant, stupid, or evil, but that we have different perspectives that need to be explored and understood. (However, this study guide gives only very limited opportunities to explore and understand the different perspectives on ministry with LGBTQ persons.) The chapter surveys what we mean by “church” and understands it as the sign and servant of the new reality that: 1) the saving love of God is meant for all people, 2) the saving love of God transforms, and 3) the love of God creates community. The church is visible and invisible, a mixture of faithful and faithless, striving to incarnate the love of Christ and be a faithful witness to God and God’s purposes.

Chapter 3 shows how the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church matters. As a church, we are able to touch the lives of hurting people and bring the love of God in concrete ways. We do this best in connection with each other. It touches on the history of denominationalism in America and why a denomination might be important. Hints are given about possible different ways of structuring our denomination that might give greater freedom or space for people to serve according to their consciences.

Chapter 4 attempts to set out parameters for a way forward for the church. Five principles from Wood’s paper are outlined:

  1. Subsidiarity – the idea that decisions ought to be made in the most significant context allowable or the lowest “level” of organization. (This is the basis for the “local option” approach to resolving our impasse.)
  2. Reconciled diversity – recognizing the legitimacy of Christian brothers and sisters despite disagreement. Persons are reconciled to one another in relationship despite disagreement. (Can’t we just all get along?)
  3. Reception – the idea that decisions by a governing body are not fully authoritative until they are “received” by the constituency. (This can be used to argue that because a portion of the UM Church does not receive the decisions of General Conference, those provisions are not fully authoritative.)
  4. Conciliar fellowship model – a “council of churches” way of organizing United Methodism, with general agreement around confession of the apostolic faith, recognition of each other’s members and ministries, shared celebration of the Eucharist, and appropriate levels of decision-making around common concerns. Each church would be semi-autonomous.
  5. Pre-conciliar fellowship – for groups where there are irreconcilable differences in Word, Sacrament, or Order. The “council of churches” would be for fellowship only and not decision-making. Each church would be fully autonomous.

The discussion questions are stimulating and well-written, although there are way too many questions for each chapter. A group leader would need to pick and choose which questions to use or lengthen the session beyond an hour.

The thrust of the book in terms of most of the questions and illustrations is toward the unity of the church. Several illustrations portray acceptance of same-sex behavior and persons. Negative consequences of a “split” are surfaced. The positive aspects of the United Methodist connection are emphasized. The subliminal message is that we ought to be able to find a way to stay together despite our differences over marriage and sexual ethics.

Conversely, there are no illustrations or advocacy for our current church position. There is no defense of the church’s teaching. There is no exposition about how the church might be in ministry with LGBTQ persons in line with our current teaching. It does not place the various understandings of same-sex behavior in the larger context of our beliefs about human sexuality in general. In fact, the “rightness” or “wrongness” of same-sex behavior is never addressed. The resource does not wrestle with the deep theological concerns that motivate evangelicals to contend for the current teaching of the church. Only a few Bible verses are referenced, relating to God’s love and focusing on the positive unity of the church. It simply assumes that we have these differences of opinion (without exploring why) and attempts to move forward from there.

Chapter 1 is basically an introduction. Chapters 2 and 3 develop a limited (rather than comprehensive) understanding of the church that is rooted in Wesleyan theology, rather than in Scripture. Chapter 4 is the most helpful, as it gets down to some concrete principles as to how we might resolve the church’s impasse and move forward.

If I were using this resource with a congregation, I would find it necessary to add material to provide balance and tailor some of the questions in a more neutral direction. This resource does provide a “toe-in-the-water” approach to discussing the controversies around LGBTQ persons. It makes no attempt to explore the differences of opinion, however, and it puts forward a very limited theological understanding of the church. It is biased toward a certain desired outcome. And it makes only limited use of Scripture. I had hoped for better from our church’s leaders who are advocating that we “love God with our mind.”