What Is Unity?

 

 

 

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

In the wake of the September meeting of the Commission on a Way Forward in Berlin, I would like to reflect on the balancing act that the Commission is engaged in as it formulates its proposal for the Council of Bishops and the called 2019 General Conference. Any views expressed here are my own and do not reflect the thinking of the Commission as a whole.

The key to understanding the Commission’s work is the Vision statement that describes what the Commission is trying to accomplish. “The Commission will design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible.” Please observe that the phrase “as possible” is repeated three times.

A Missional Purpose

The first thing to note is that the Commission seeks to “maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.” Our work has a missional imperative. We acknowledge that different groups can best reach different types of people. Those who respond positively to a progressive expression of United Methodism would probably not respond well to a more traditional expression, and vice versa. Right now, the conflict in our denomination is hindering both progressives and traditionalists from fulfilling our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Whatever proposal the Commission recommends ought to be aimed at freeing us for Christ-based mission and enhancing the missional potential for all parts of the denomination.

Balancing Differentiation with Unity

The crux of the Commission’s work, however, is found in the word “balance.” We are trying to balance the need for “as much contextual differentiation as possible” related to the “different theological understandings of human sexuality” with “a desire for as much unity as possible.” Contextualization requires space and a loosening of the connection. Unity requires a tightening of the connection. As Bishop Ken Carter put it in a September 21 press release, “We know that members of our denomination want space from each other—because of theological differences from each other and the harm we have done to each other—and at the same time connection—because this is in our DNA.” Where is the balance point between as much space as is needed to accommodate the different theological understandings and as much unity/connection as possible? That is what the Commission needs to discern.

It is important to understand that no proposal from the Commission is going to be the magic wand or ideal solution. We deal with a political reality in terms of coming to an agreement that will satisfy many diverse groups of people, both in the U.S. and in the 60 nations around the world where Methodism is present. It has been said that politics is the art of the possible, not a search for the ideal. Sometimes, the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Holding out for the ideal solution (from our perspective) may mean that nothing gets accomplished, and the impasse remains. So the Commission is seeking to balance competing interests to come to a workable solution.

It is a given that our current denominational structure does not achieve this balance. For progressives who want to perform same-sex weddings, there is too much connection that is inhibiting their ability to do ministry as they believe they are called to do it, in that their ministry is prohibited by the general church. At the same time, there is not enough connection in that the rest of the church has not agreed to endorse the progressive vision for ministry with LGBTQ persons.

For conservatives, there is not enough connection in that there is little accountability or adherence to the actions of General Conference defining our parameters of ministry with LGBTQ persons. At the same time, there is too much connection in that the actions of progressives to perform same-sex weddings and ordain practicing homosexuals cause the community to think all United Methodist churches do so and alienates traditional United Methodists from the denomination.

Redefining Unity

Since the current structure is untenable, what might we move toward? The Commission’s Scope declares, “We should be open to new ways of embodying unity.” It adds, “We will fulfill our directive by considering ‘new forms and structures’ of relationship.” Further, “We will give consideration to greater freedom and flexibility to a future United Methodist Church that will redefine our present connectionality, which is showing signs of brokenness.”

All of this means that we will need to redefine what “unity” means for United Methodists. We can no longer have unity with one another on the same basis as in the past. To move forward, we will have to reach a new understanding of unity.

First, we must acknowledge that the unity of the church is not at stake here. In the press release, Bishop Ken Carter said, “We are the one Body of Christ with many members, and God uses this diversity to offer grace and healing to the world.” With all due respect, United Methodism is not “the one Body of Christ.” That distinction belongs to the whole worldwide Christian Church. United Methodism is only a part of “the one Body of Christ”—a vital and personal part for those of us who call ourselves Wesleyans. In reality, however, that global body has been institutionally divided since the Great Schism of 1054 between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. It has been further divided by the thousands of Protestant denominations that have arisen over the past 500 years.

The unity that “the one Body of Christ” is able to have is not institutional, but spiritual. We can acknowledge each other as believers in Jesus Christ and work together in ways that stem from common agreement. By that mutual acknowledgement and respect, along with common efforts in ministry, the worldwide Christian Church can indeed express “diversity to offer grace and healing to the world.” Whether The United Methodist Church stays together in one denomination will have minimal impact on the unity of the worldwide Christian Church. That unity can best be preserved in our part of the Body by our treating each other with mutual acknowledgement and respect, while working together in aspects of ministry that stem from common agreement. Perhaps that is a new definition of unity.

Second, we must acknowledge that the unity of The United Methodist Church is broken beyond repair. This is difficult and painful for us to admit. However, we must face the fact that many progressives who want to be able to perform same-sex marriages and ordain practicing homosexuals cannot live much longer in a church that prohibits them from doing so. And we must face the fact that many conservatives who believe that same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals is contrary to God’s will could not live for long in a church that allowed and even advocated for such. As the prophet Amos put it, “Can two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” (Amos 3:3).

A New Unity

We could reestablish unity in The United Methodist Church on the basis of agreement only by seeing either progressives or evangelicals leave the church in large numbers. The recently formed Uniting Methodists group cherishes the hope that many United Methodists could remain united in a body that gave a “local option.” Under this previously rejected plan, pastors could individually decide whether or not to perform same-sex weddings, but would not be forced to do so. And annual conferences could individually decide whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals, but would not be forced to do so. Such a scenario would only be acceptable to progressives as a way station en route to eventual full endorsement of homosexuality. And many evangelicals would feel a need to depart once their annual conference or local church moved toward LGBTQ affirmation.

Alternatively, we could reestablish unity by restructuring The United Methodist Church into something looser, where progressives and traditionalists would not have a say over each other’s ministries, and where financial ties would be limited to those common areas of ministry that all agreed upon. This would be the type of redefining “unity” and considering “new forms and structures of relationship” that the Commission’s Scope envisions.

The question comes down to how much space is necessary between progressives and traditionalists. Can they share bishops? Can they be bound by a common set of membership qualifications? Can they support the same list of seminaries? Can they both continue to support all the same general boards and agencies we now have? How do congregations and clergy determine which part of The United Methodist Church they identify with? How do local churches obtain a pastor who is theologically compatible with the congregation’s views on LGBTQ ministry? How do congregations identify or “market” themselves as distinctively progressive or traditionalist or something else? Are we all still part of the same denomination or are we different denominations? How do the central conferences outside the U.S. continue to receive support from The United Methodist Church? With what part of the UM Church (if any) do central conferences identify? And the list of questions goes on.

The balancing act comes in because there is a desire for as much unity and connection as possible among many United Methodists. But the level of connection desired varies from person to person. What is too much connection for one person is not enough connection for another. And the more connection we maintain between progressives and traditionalists, the more traditionalists may decide to withdraw from United Methodism altogether, thus defeating the goal of preserving unity with those congregations and clergy.

These questions and issues will test the Commission, and ultimately the whole United Methodist Church, as we seek to balance differentiation and unity. There will not be a proposal that pleases everyone. Some will want more unity, while others will want more differentiation. All we can hope for is to strike a balance that will satisfy the greatest number of people, while providing a way for those who cannot live with that proposal to exit from the denomination with pension, property, and assets. This approach is the only way to end the conflict that is tearing our church apart and distracting us from our main mission of disciple-making.

Please continue praying for the Commission as we seek out the optimum balancing point.

Are Sexual Ethics an Essential Issue? (Part II)

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

As the Commission on a Way Forward does its work toward providing a proposal to resolve the impasse in our church over whether same-sex relationships are “incompatible with Christian teaching” or not, there is a lively debate springing up across the church about the essential nature of this question. Is the church’s teaching about marriage and sexuality an essential issue, one over which it may be appropriate for denominations to separate?

I have already surveyed some of the reasoning behind the essential nature of the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. Here are more thoughts on the matter.

Third, the affirmation of same-sex relations would undermine the theological importance of heterosexual marriage in the Bible. Theologically, marriage is used to represent the relationship between God and the people of Israel (Old Testament) and between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32, Revelation). God and God’s people are different from one another, not the same. It is that difference that is symbolized in the difference between male and female in marriage. Our understanding of the nature of God and how God relates with his covenant people is at stake—another essential matter.

Fourth, the New Testament emphasizes the importance of avoiding sexual immorality. As Paul puts it, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body … You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (I Corinthians 6:18-20). The term “sexual immorality” (Greek: porneia) describes all forms of sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage, including homosexuality. Its meaning in the New Testament world is informed by the list of sexual sins itemized in Leviticus 18.

As mentioned earlier, one of the few stipulations placed by the early church on Gentile believers was to avoid sexual immorality (Acts 15). Commands to avoid sexual immorality appear in at least ten New Testament letters out of 21. Such explicit commands also appear in Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Revelation. Sexual immorality is mentioned at least as often as idolatry in the New Testament. As such, it seems to be a pretty essential concern for Christians, especially in a hedonistic, sex-saturated culture like ours that is so similar in that regard to biblical times.

Fifth, it makes no theological sense to say that behaviors that the Bible forbids can be legitimate Christian behaviors. Can you imagine saying that adultery is an acceptable practice for Christians? Or theft? Or slander? Or murder? Of course, Christians are guilty of all of these from time to time. We are all broken people and occasionally fall into sin. But we acknowledge it is sin. We don’t try to justify it by saying that God would approve of this behavior. There are times when the Church gets into trouble by trying to justify sinful behavior, like greed or many types of divorce or racism. But this is the Church being inconsistent with its own teachings and needing to be reformed and corrected. We have allowed the Church to be co-opted by the value system of the world frequently during our 2,000-year history. We should not allow it to happen again with regard to our sexual ethics.

Finally, the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality is an essential issue because to do otherwise creates a damaging confusion in the minds of our people and those we want to reach with the Gospel. One United Methodist congregation will be proclaiming that same-sex attractions are part of God’s good creation and ought to be embraced and affirmed by faithful Christian disciples. Another United Methodist congregation down the road will be proclaiming that same-sex attractions are part of the brokenness of our sinful world and ought to be resisted by faithful Christian disciples. One congregation will perform same-sex marriages or have a non-celibate gay pastor, while the congregation down the road believes that to perform same-sex marriages or have a non-celibate gay pastor is contrary to God’s will. The message is contradictory and confusing to the community, as well as to the congregational members—what does your denomination really believe about this? This confusion will be a stumbling block to effective evangelism and discipleship.

What’s more, those who affirm same-sex relationships are hurt when fellow United Methodists say that such relationships are sinful, while those who believe same-sex relationships are inappropriate for Christians are hurt when fellow United Methodists insist that such relationships are blessed by God and consistent with Scripture. If we have opposite understandings of what a disciple of Jesus Christ acts like, how can we both be making disciples of Jesus Christ? We are working at cross purposes with each other and causing harm to each other.

It sounds hopeful to say that the church’s teaching on marriage and sexual ethics are not essential matters. We can agree to disagree and still function together in one church body. But for many reasons, such a compatibilist position is not theologically or practically realistic.

  1. To affirm same-sex relationships is to undermine the reliability and authority of Scripture, as well as to contravene our United Methodist doctrinal standards.
  2. To affirm same-sex relationships opens the door to further possible revisions to the Christian understanding of marriage, leading to further potential disregard for the teachings of Scripture and the 2,000-year-old tradition of the Christian Church.
  3. To affirm same-sex relationships undermines the theological significance of heterosexual, monogamous marriage in Scripture as a picture of God’s relationships with his people.
  4. To affirm same-sex relationships goes counter to the heavy emphasis in the New Testament on avoiding all types of sexual immorality, belying the importance that biblical writers gave to this question.
  5. To affirm same-sex relationships puts the church’s stamp of approval on a behavior that Scripture defines as inappropriate for Christians, injecting into church teaching a destructive accommodation to worldly values.
  6. To affirm same-sex relationships as a non-essential matter creates a Christian Church that is communicating mixed messages about marriage and sexuality, working at cross-purposes with itself, and causing confusion and harm to Christians and non-Christians alike.

I would like to say, “Can’t we all just get along?” But that would open the door to further confusion, weaken biblical authority, deepen theological imprecision and uncertainty, and continue causing harm to one another within the church. That is not a recipe for enhancing the mission and vitality of The United Methodist Church. We would be better served by acknowledging reality and creating structural separation that would allow people to engage in ministry unhindered by continued conflict over an issue that many deem essential to the Christian faith.

Are Sexual Ethics an Essential Issue? (Part I)

The Rev. Frank Schaefer (third from right) stands with family and supporters during a prayer service for unity at Court Square Park in Memphis, Tennessee, prior to the Oct. 22 oral hearing on his case by the United Methodist Judicial Council. Mike Dubose, UMNS.

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

As the Commission on a Way Forward does its work toward providing a proposal to resolve the impasse in our church over whether same-sex relationships are “incompatible with Christian teaching” or not, there is a lively debate springing up across the church about the essential nature of this question. Is the church’s teaching about marriage and sexuality an essential issue, one over which it may be appropriate for denominations to separate?

Some argue that it is a non-essential issue, that Christians can disagree about the definition of marriage, can function differently with regard to what marriage ceremonies clergy should perform, and still live together in the same denomination. This group is often called “compatibilists” because they can live compatibly together with Christians who believe and practice differently than they do. Compatibilists often cannot fathom why we can’t all just get along. They often blame “incompatibilists” on both ends of the spectrum for dividing the church (in their view, illegitimately).

I would like to make the case that the church’s teaching on marriage and same-sex relationships is an essential issue, one over which churches may legitimately experience division. I approach it from the standpoint of one who affirms the current position of the church that all LGBTQ persons are loved by God and of sacred worth. That affirmation stands on its own.

Simultaneously, I affirm United Methodism’s teaching that same-sex relations are contrary to God’s will as expressed in Scripture and the teachings of the Church down through the centuries. I could just as easily make the case that this is an essential issue from the standpoint of those who affirm same-sex relationships and would perform same-sex marriages. The ongoing and escalating disobedience we see in The United Methodist Church is a sign that many progressives, too, believe this is essential to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let us establish from the start that the actions of believers and the teachings of the church are closely related. Our beliefs matter because they affect the way we live. Because we believe that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” we renounce racism and all forms of ethnic and gender prejudice (Galatians 3:28). We oppose certain behaviors as unchristian because they contradict essential doctrines that Christians believe.

We often think that Christian orthodoxy is defined only by assent to certain essential doctrines alone. But James reminds us that “even the demons believe” there is one God (James 2:19), but it does not make them Christians without the deeds that spring from faith.

It is instructive to notice that the requirements the early church placed on Gentile believers were not doctrinal, but ethical. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:28-29). John Wesley prioritized right actions over right beliefs. “Right opinion is at best but a very slender part of religion, (which properly and directly consists in right tempers, words, and actions,) and frequently it is no part of religion” (Letter to the Bishop of Gloucestershire).

This does not mean that doctrine is unimportant. But right doctrine or orthodox beliefs must result in right actions in order to be spiritually effective. So orthopraxis is just as important as orthodoxy.

So why is the church’s teaching on the nature of marriage and the acceptability of same-sex relationships an essential matter—part of an orthopraxis that defines who we are as United Methodist Christians?

First, the affirmation of same-sex relations would call into question the reliability and authority of Scripture. As noted New Testament scholar Dr. Richard Hayes summarizes, “The few biblical texts that do address the topic of homosexual behavior, however, are unambiguously and unremittingly negative in their judgment.” And “we must affirm that the New Testament tells us the truth about ourselves as sinners and as God’s sexual creatures: marriage between man and woman is the normative form for human sexual fulfillment, and homosexuality is one among many tragic signs that we are a broken people, alienated from God’s loving purpose” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 381, 399-400, emphasis original).

Several interpretive schemes have been proposed to reinterpret the biblical evidence in such a way as to allow same-sex relationships to be affirmed. However, they have all been refuted by biblical scholars far more knowledgeable than I (and beyond the scope of this article to address). The fact is that the Bible is unequivocally clear about this question. To say that the Bible is wrong on this matter is to undermine its reliability as “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” Article IV of our Confession of Faith goes on to state, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.” For the church to affirm same-sex relationships would be to make something an article of faith that is not revealed in or established by Scripture. As a contravention of our doctrinal standards, that is an essential matter.

Second, to redefine marriage in a way that is different from the biblical definition opens the door to further revisions. Once we have discounted the Bible’s teachings that marriage ought to be between one man and one woman, what is to prevent us from discounting teachings about the need for exclusivity within marriage or the number of people who can participate in a marriage? Once the line is crossed, there is no other line that cannot also in theory be crossed. At that point, the Bible ceases to be our supreme authority, and we have allowed other considerations to outweigh the teachings of Scripture. Again, this is an essential issue as a repudiation of our doctrinal position that Scripture is our primary authority for faith and life.

It is not unreasonable for people to believe that the church’s teaching is an essential matter about which there must be agreement in order to have denominational coherence. I will explore this matter further in Part II of this blog.

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.”

This Conflict Is About the Bible

By Thomas Lambrecht

For 45 years, The United Methodist Church has been in conflict over how the church should be in ministry with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons. From the very beginning of this conflict, evangelicals have maintained that the conflict represented deeper issues where the church is divided. One of those deeper issues is our view of the authority and inspiration of Scripture.

This deeper division is brought to the fore in a resolution that will be considered at the upcoming annual conference session in Upper New York. The resolution (see page 94), submitted by Kevin M. Nelson on behalf of Schenectady First UM Church, is entitled “Rebuke and Repudiation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.” Although in this brief blog I cannot address all the nuances of the theological issues raised by the resolution, I would like to take a look at how the resolution outlines the theological differences over Scripture in our denomination.

The resolution characterizes “one group in this crisis, evangelicals/orthodox/far right” as using “a faith paradigm that emphasizes Biblical literalism, seeing Jesus through a doctrinal lens and upholding a set of core beliefs.”

  • Tagging evangelicals and orthodox United Methodists as “far right” squashes legitimate discussion and dialogue. That kind of toxic labelling is especially unhelpful within our global denomination, since orthodox UMs uphold the beliefs enshrined in our denomination’s doctrinal standards. Identifying worldwide United Methodism as “far right” is irresponsible and incorrect. Instead, traditionalists hold to what Bishop Scott Jones calls the “radical center” of Christian faith.
  • The resolution says we “see Jesus through a doctrinal lens.” In actuality, both liberals and conservatives see Jesus through a “doctrinal lens.” We all do. Evangelicals would clarify that we see Jesus through the lens of Scripture, since the Bible is the most true and comprehensive revelation of who Jesus is and what he said and did.
  • Unapologetically, we do “uphold a set of core beliefs.” That is the purpose of the Nicene Creed and our own United Methodist doctrinal standards (the Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, General Rules, Wesley’s Sermons, and his Notes on the New Testament). These are the things that Methodists believe. Contrary to the protests of some within the UM Church, it is not wrong to defend them. In fact, ordained clergy promise to “preach and maintain” the doctrines of The United Methodist Church (Discipline, ¶ 336.10). Ordained elders vow to accept the church’s “order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word” (Book of Worship, p. 676).
  • Phrases like “Biblical literalism” are not very helpful without specific verses in mind. A Scriptural-minded disciple reads the Bible searching for its intended meaning in its historical context and seeking to then apply that meaning in our lives today. As John Wesley said, we look for the “plain meaning” of Scripture. In other words, it is possible to look for the literal meaning of Scripture without being literalistic. If it is poetry, it should be understood as poetry. If it is metaphor or parable, it should be understood in those ways. But we cannot stretch the Bible to mean something it does not say, nor may we disregard the plain and consistent teaching of Scripture.
  • Evangelicals believe the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, who worked through the human authors to create a unique and authoritative revelation of God. We believe the Bible is to be interpreted through the Holy Spirit, as well, using our reason and the guidance of Church tradition, with the embodiment of scriptural teaching in our human experience.

By contrast, the resolution characterizes “another group, progressives/liberals/reconciling United Methodists” as using “a faith paradigm that utilizes historical-critical biblical analysis, recognizes the Bible and the gospels as human products that are the result of historical processes, views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning (a surplus of meaning) and looks to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate.”

  • If one is going to stick with using unhelpful characterizations, this perspective would logically be known as “far left.”
  • We are told that this second group views the Bible “as human products that are the result of historical processes.” Absent is any mention here of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit or the uniquely authoritative place of Scripture. If the Bible is merely a human book, it can be read and analyzed like any other human book, accepting whatever parts of it one agrees with while rejecting the rest. This view in fact contradicts the Bible’s own view of itself: “All Scripture is God-breathed [or inspired by God] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17, NIV).
  • The “historical-critical analysis” that many progressives use to understand Scripture flows from their understanding of the Bible as a human book, put together by human authors and compilers over centuries of time. They attempt to dissect the scriptures and analyze them as to their sources and forms, even to the point of deciding what in the Bible is true or authentic and what is not. While evangelicals believe in using scholarly tools to aid our understanding of Scripture, we believe it is more important to look at the Bible as it is, as we have received it, and in the form in which the Church recognized it as inspired and authoritative.
  • According to the resolution, the progressive approach “views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning.” In fact, the metaphorical meaning can sometimes trump the literal meaning for those who take this approach. There are metaphors in Scripture, but it would be a mistake to take “much of the Bible” as metaphor. Such a view can often become a way to simply disregard the plain teaching of Scripture.
  • The resolution claims progressives “look to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate.” That is all well and good, but it is not enough. The Bible points us to Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world and the Author and Perfecter of our faith. We are called not simply to emulate the character of God, but to surrender ourselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and live as his disciples, seeking to obey all that he has commanded us (Matthew 28:20). The emulation of godly character comes about not through our efforts alone, but by the power of the Holy Spirit transforming us from the inside out.

Admittedly, the Upper New York resolution does not claim to be a detailed or comprehensive exposition of the two different perspectives on Scripture it addresses. But just from the brief statements that are outlined in the resolution, one can see that we hold very different views about the inspiration and authority of Scripture. The orthodox view is that we are under the Scripture’s authority, while many progressives view themselves as authorities over Scripture, qualified to determine which parts of Scripture are the inspired Word of God and which are not, free to discard biblical teachings that no longer seem relevant or in step with a modern world.

Of course, those who read Scripture from an evangelical/orthodox perspective do not believe that every verse of Scripture is to be applied to our lives today as a literal commandment. (Common examples include observing the food laws of the Old Testament or wearing clothes with mixed fibers.) Our “doctrinal lens” and “core beliefs” give us guidance here. Our Articles of Religion state, “Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth, yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral” (Article VI). There are objective principles of interpretation that guide us in how to apply the teachings of Scripture. And importantly, we do not have the same authority that Jesus and the apostles had to reinterpret Scripture or introduce new revelations from God, particularly if those revelations contradict the clear teaching of Scripture.

Can two such divergent theological approaches live together in one church? I would argue they cannot. There is no common ground to build on between them. One group appeals to Scripture, while the other group appeals to human reason and experience over Scripture. The two groups end up talking past each other. They sometimes use the same words, but usually with totally different meanings.

It is these two divergent theological approaches that have led to the two divergent understandings of human sexuality and marriage. One cannot divorce the one issue from the other. As we seek a way forward for our church, it is important to take into account the underlying theological approaches that drive us apart.

Responding to Misconceptions about the Bishops’ Commission

Members of the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward at their March meeting in Atlanta, COWF

By Thomas Lambrecht

The Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward for the Church is now in its fifth month of work. We have had three face-to-face meetings and are preparing for a fourth in July.

Over these months, I have continued to hear criticisms of the Commission that stem from misunderstandings or myths about what the Commission was charged to do and/or what will finally result from the process. As a member of the Commission, I would like to speak to these misconceptions.

1.      The Commission is just another way to “kick the can down the road.” After 45 years of debate and dialogue, United Methodism continues to discern a consistent biblical teaching regarding marriage and sexuality. I share evangelical frustration that this seems to be a never-ending controversy. I also know progressives who are extremely frustrated the church has not moved toward officially allowing same-sex marriages and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and in fact has moved toward tighter limits on these questions. And centrists often wonder aloud, “Can’t we just all get along?”

With some justification, people say: No matter what proposals have been presented at General Conference — from left, right, or center — the issue never gets resolved. Bishops have often failed to enforce the requirements of the Discipline and are perceived as trying to delay any resolution to the conflict. Church-wide studies and committees have failed to end the debate (e.g., 1988 and 1992). The 2012 and 2016 General Conferences were unable to even vote on legislation pertaining to this conflict. The promised called General Conference, originally set for 2018, was pushed back to 2019. So what confidence do we have that the Commission will actually bring a plan to resolve the impasse? Our track record suggests the Commission’s formation was just another way to “kick the can down the road.”

The Commission is indeed moving toward a solution. Its rough outlines are being worked on right now, as well as plans for how the proposal will be presented and interpreted to the church. This is not a quick process, since the proposal will need to gain the assent of a diverse church. (If there were a simple and easy solution, it would have been passed and implemented long ago!) Therefore, the task of creating such a proposal needed to be given to a small, representative group from across the connection so it could devise a broadly acceptable solution.

The Commission has built relationships of trust, defined the parameters of the challenge as well as the focus of a solution, consulted with experts, examined lessons of church history, learned from other mainline denominations that have experienced this conflict, heard about the unique contexts of ministry in the various central conferences outside the U.S., and surveyed at least nine different proposals various groups have made for resolving the impasse. All of this needed to happen before we could, in good faith, begin crafting a proposal for a way forward.

I remain confident the Commission will coalesce around a proposal that is broadly acceptable to the church. The Council of Bishops will act upon that proposal before submitting it to the 2019 General Conference. That conference has been called and preparations are being made for it. “Kicking the can” stops in St. Louis in February, 2019!

2.      The Commission is just a disguised way to bring back the “local option” or “third way” proposal. The idea that the church could “agree to disagree” on issues of ordination and marriage for LGBTQ+ persons and provide some sort of “local option,” where each local church or annual conference could decide for themselves, has been defeated at every General Conference since 2008. Significant segments of the church, both progressive and conservative, are adamantly opposed to a “local option.” Some outside the Commission have been promoting this option, and a few on the Commission may favor it, but they are in the minority. It is not a viable way forward.

The challenge we face is not geographical, but theological. Leaders and congregations in nearly every part of the global church (even in Africa) have varying opinions about whether marriage or ordination of LGBTQ+ persons is appropriate for the Christian church. A “local option” would still find disagreement within annual conferences that do or do not ordain LGBTQ+ persons that would offend the dissenters’ consciences. A congregational or clergy option regarding same-sex marriages would potentially pit congregations against pastors when they disagreed on its appropriateness, and it would certainly lead the church in a much more congregational direction when it comes to our polity.

In a recent blog, Dr. David Watson summarizes a trenchant critique of the “local option” when he calls it “incoherent” theologically. “If we are going to move to a ‘local option’ on homosexuality, we are saying that the General Conference cannot actually make reliable ethical decisions,” writes Watson, academic dean of United Theological Seminary. “If this is the case, we should move to a local option on all major ethical issues … At the end of the day, we as United Methodists are either a church or we are not. And if we are a church, then we are also a moral community. If we are not a church, but a loose association of churches, that is another matter altogether.”

A guiding principle of the Commission is to find a way forward that does not offend the consciences of anyone, whether progressive or traditionalist. No one will be forced to live within a body with which they cannot conscientiously agree. Therefore, the Commission is unlikely to endorse a “local option” plan.

3.      The Commission is a power play by the bishops and other church leaders to maintain the institutional status quo of the church. I have been encouraged to hear the discussions in the Commission revolve not just around the question of how the church ministers with LGBTQ+ persons, but about how the church can once again become effective in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I believe the Commission will present a way forward that sets the church free to reimagine how it can be effectively structured for the 21st century. The focus is not on institutional preservation, but missional effectiveness. We have brought back some of the learnings from the Call to Action report of 2008 to help inform our work. Our proposal will not simply be a rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic, but a search for a new way to do mission and ministry effectively.

4.      The Commission’s proposal will end up forcing people to compromise their principles for the sake of securing the financial future of the church. We are cognizant of, and continue to learn about, the financial realities facing the church. These include financially supporting the work of the church in Africa, Asia, and parts of Europe, providing for unfunded liability for clergy pensions, and the future of various boards and agencies. I feel confident in saying that, where possible, the Commission will opt for continuity and consistency, ensuring needed financial support for vital programs and ministries. At the same time, there is a sense in which providing for the financial needs of the present and future are just details. Major companies worth hundreds of billions of dollars work through these issues in mergers, spin-offs, and restructures all the time. These challenges can be solved. Far more important is finding a workable model of connection that allows principled and enthusiastic mission to go forward. We are confident we can do that in a way that will meet the financial needs our church faces.

5.      The Commission is structured in such a way as to create winners and losers. The Commission is stacked with persons who favor a more progressive or revisionist stance regarding ministry with LGBTQ+ persons. The Commission was structured to bring together people who are broadly representative of The United Methodist Church at large. It is not proportionally representative. (If it were, 40 percent of the membership of the Commission would be from Africa instead of the current 23 percent.) As long as there is representation from the major segments of the church (and there is), the Commission is well positioned to do its work.

Any proposal coming from the Commission has to have the support of all the major segments of the church in order to be adopted, since I presume it will require a change in the constitution. It needs to be supported by bishops, clergy, and laity. It needs to be supported by progressives, centrists, and traditionalists. And it needs to be supported by the U.S. church and the central conferences. It has to be a (relatively) consensus proposal, or it will not obtain the 2/3 majority vote needed at the 2019 General Conference and the subsequent 2/3 ratification by the members of annual conferences. 

The Commission members do not think in terms of “winners” and “losers.” The Commission is looking at how the church might be structured in the future to put an end to our infighting. In the past the debate has been which view – traditional or revisionist – was correct and should prevail. Fortunately, we’re not headed down that dead end road once again. We are looking toward a solution that puts an end to the fighting and creates a better future. We are working hard to craft a proposal that will enable all United Methodists to identify with a group in which they can feel at home, pursuing the mission of the church in a way consistent with their consciences and theological framework. Most of the other mainline denominations have degenerated into unholy fights over power and property, as they broke into pieces. Our goal is to find a different way, a Christ-honoring way, to respectfully and generously resolve the intractable divisions that beset our church. Thank you for your prayers as we seek to be faithful to this vision.

Bright Spots in a Confusing Decision

By Thomas Lambrecht

Last week’s decision by the Judicial Council regarding the election and consecration of an openly lesbian bishop in a same-sex marriage was very complicated and not entirely consistent. The Council strove to tailor its decision as narrowly as possible and delved into many legal technicalities. In the midst of all the complexity, it would be easy to lose sight of several positive aspects of the ruling.

1. The Judicial Council clearly and forcefully upheld the principle that a jurisdiction’s bishops, acting on behalf of the whole United Methodist Church, cannot legally consecrate as bishop a person who does not meet the qualifications for office. The Western Jurisdiction had maintained that it could elect and consecrate whoever it thought would be an appropriate bishop in light of their particular context, and that the rest of the church could say nothing about their choice. The ruling recognized that bishops are bishops of the whole church and that jurisdictional bishops are acting on behalf of the whole church when they consecrate a bishop. No jurisdiction or annual conference is completely autonomous. We are part of a connection that is responsible and accountable to each other.

2. The Judicial Council clarified that “a same-sex marriage license issued by competent civil authorities together with the clergy person’s status in a same-sex relationship is a public declaration that the person is a self-avowed practicing homosexual.” This important ruling will put an end to games that some openly homosexual clergy have been playing by living in a same-sex marriage, yet declining to acknowledge that they are practicing homosexuals. Rather than requiring church authorities to ask intrusive questions about the personal lives and practices of clergy, all that is now necessary for a person to be brought up on a complaint is the public record of being in a same-sex marriage. The Judicial Council recognized that being in a marriage assumes a sexual relationship, and that it would then be up to the clergyperson under complaint to give “rebuttal evidence” during a complaint process to refute that assumption in an individual case. This should make it much easier and more straightforward to hold accountable some clergypersons who are living contrary to the moral teachings of the church.

3. This decision also puts the spotlight on the Western Jurisdiction to make a decision about the future of The United Methodist Church and its participation in that future. The jurisdiction will have to decide between equally unsatisfactory alternatives. Either it will have to remove from office (and from clergy status) a person that it unanimously supported as bishop, or it will have to openly acknowledge that it can no longer be part of The United Methodist Church as it is currently configured.

Judicial Council, UMNS

“This ruling really does nothing to resolve the tension and impatience and anxiety in our system. It’s not clear-cut enough,” Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, told the New York Times. “One of the tensions that will play out now within our denomination in the next few months is people will be watching carefully whether the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops will in fact follow through and do the due process, and do it well.”

The leadership of the jurisdiction may seek to draw out the process as long as they can, putting off that decision by as many as six months to a year. Delay tactics in themselves will send the message that the Western Jurisdiction wants to play by its own rules, unconnected from the rest of the church. But the time clock on the complaint process will run out long before the special General Conference in February 2019.

The jurisdictional leaders may seek some kind of “just resolution” that leaves Bishop Karen Oliveto in office. But unlike the cases of clergy performing same-sex marriages, there is no middle ground here to find compromise for a resolution. Either Oliveto meets the qualifications for continuing in her clergy status or she does not. And if she does not, the only option is to remove her as bishop and revoke her credentials. No 24-hour suspension consequence is available as a “just resolution.” The Western Jurisdiction’s decisions over the coming months will speak volumes about the ability of progressives and traditionalists to live together in the same church body.

As expected, the Judicial Council decision did not resolve the impasse in our denomination over the role of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the church. The only bodies with the authority to resolve the impasse are the Commission on a Way Forward, the Council of Bishops, and the special General Conference. As I understand it, the Commission’s final plan needs to go to the Council of Bishops for approval in May 2018. The Council of Bishops then needs to submit it in legislative form by July 2018 in order to meet the deadlines for the February 2019 General Conference. So we will know a year from now the final proposal that will be put before the called General Conference. Until then, we encourage United Methodists to remain steadfast in prayer and continue as members of their local churches, so that the evangelical voice is undiminished in helping to form whatever comes next.

The Commission, Round 2

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

The Commission on a Way Forward for the Church was established in order to examine the current United Methodist position on marriage and sexuality and explore all options that would promote unity while respecting the theological integrity of our denomination and its members. To that end, the two meetings we have experienced have been positive and productive. Commission members are appreciative of the well-organized and responsive leadership from our three moderators, Bishops Sandra Steiner-Ball, Ken Carter, and David Yemba.

As a commission, we have covenanted to certain boundaries around our behavior toward one another and what we can share publicly. While it is understandable that the proceedings of the commission not be public, this covenant has helped us built trust and relationship.

At our recent meeting, Bishop Woodie White shared about his experience with the Central Jurisdiction, which was a segregated (all-Black) jurisdiction that was dismantled in the 1968 merger. While not equating homosexuality with racism, White hoped that we could learn from the commitment to unity that overcame differences at the 1968 General Conference.

We also heard from church historian Russell Richey, who described for us the history of separation and disunity in the Methodist Church from its founding. According to Richey, in every decade from 1780 to 1890 the church experienced a structural separation or division of some kind. Each one led to increased growth and vitality in the separate bodies (for the most part), rather than leading to decline. From 1890 on, however, the emphasis shifted to church unity, with two major mergers. Division within the church did not end during those years, but was expressed through the formation of caucuses and other interest groups advocating for a point of view within the church, rather than some form of structural separation. The inward focus of mergers and in-fighting, however, has led to continual decline since the 1960s.

From my perspective, it seems as though sometimes we are better off separating, so that the separate groups can pursue ministry free of the baggage of conflict, and that historically separation has led to growth, rather than decline.

The Commission has been divided into work teams. For example, my team delved into the way other mainline denominations handled the conflict over the role of LGBTQ persons in the church. Most of them handled the conflict badly, resulting in ugly court battles and hostile separation that left both the denominations and the separating entities weakened. Our prayer is that United Methodism’s destiny be different from that of our sister denominations. We can learn from their mistakes and handle the conflict in a more Christ-honoring and constructive way. I believe that is the shared goal of the entire Commission.

It has been important and informative for the Commission to learn of the different contexts of culture and ministry in the various central conferences—Europe, The Philippines, and Africa. Each of these is not monolithic, but we have gained insight from our central conference members regarding their experience and their culture’s viewpoint on human sexuality and homosexuality. Any proposal from our Commission will need to factor in the viewpoints of the central conferences and how the proposal might affect their ability to do ministry.

Although we come from drastically differing perspectives, we have been able to be open and honest with each other. Evangelicals and progressives on the Commission have been able to express what we can live with and what we cannot live with in terms of a resolution to this crisis in our church.

In addition to issues related to LGBTQ persons, commissioners have also noted the even greater demographic crisis that is leading to a more precipitous decline in the U.S. church than projected by the General Council on Finance and Administration. The energy and resources absorbed by the conflict are energy and resources that are not channeled into revitalizing our church.

We seek the renewal of the church and God’s mission, not simply the lesser goal of solving the present impasse. Our focus is on the fruitfulness, vitality, and mission of the church. The Commission desires that a solution that resolves the impasse over homosexuality should also set the framework for a way to revitalize the church and lead us back to growth once again. This will take much prayer and a divine move from God.

The work of the Commission is embedded in prayer, worship, and Bible study. We were blessed to participate in Ash Wednesday services during our recent meeting. Commission members are leading us in Bible study around the book of Galatians. We acknowledge and are very grateful for the prayer and support that we are receiving from the church. Each week, different annual conferences are lifting up the work and members of the Commission in concentrated prayer. I have repeatedly heard from friends and colleagues that they are praying for us and for our meeting.

In order to go forward, we need to depend upon the grace of God through the Holy Spirit to lead us. The Lord will need to work not only in the hearts and minds of Commissioners, but across the church, as we choose a new way forward in the months ahead. Thank you for your input and prayer support!

Reflections on the First Commission Meeting

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

I approached my first meeting as a member of the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward for the Church with trepidation, if not fear and trembling. The commission has an enormous and consequential task ahead of it — find a way forward to resolving the impasse between progressives and traditionalists over the church’s stance toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It was somewhat gratifying that nearly every other commissioner at the meeting shared the same sense of the overwhelming challenge we face, yet remained open to the leading of the Holy Spirit to find that elusive path between the proverbial rock and hard place.

That sober yet hopeful attitude characterized our first meeting last month in Atlanta, Georgia.

The commission is capably by the commission’s moderators: Bishops Ken Carter, Sandra Steiner-Ball, and David Yemba, along with their staff resource person Gil Rendle. They crafted a productive agenda that did not waste time. While the schedule allowed for some “get-acquainted” activities by commissioners, it quickly moved into work mode, as we discussed the outcomes we want to see from our work and began to sketch out what we will need to learn in order to achieve those outcomes. Small-group processes enabled us to both hear everyone’s voice and get to know each other more deeply a few at a time. The moderators adjusted the agenda and topics to address the needs and desires of the commission. Their goal really is to serve the commission and help our work to be effective.

With members from four continents, several ethnic groups, and a wide range of ages, theological perspectives, and multiple sexual orientations, the commission is indeed the most diverse body assembled in the church, other than General Conference itself. That is an appropriate reality, considering that our denomination experiences diverse realities, such as precipitous decline in parts of the United States and rapid growth in parts of The Philippines and Africa.

It will be a challenge for such a diverse group to come to agreement on a resolution of our crisis that allows us to move forward as a church. Strongly held, diametrically opposite views on essential matters will make consensus difficult. So far, the group is approaching the disagreements with goodwill and a desire to understand. As personal emotional investment comes to the surface, that goodwill will be tested, and the commission will continue to need the church’s prayers for a constructive relationship in the group that can lead to resolution. At the same time, from the beginning the commissioners have acknowledged our need to settle on an approach that can pass General Conference. Members’ idealism will need to be tempered by pragmatism.

One commissioner recently wrote, “The Commission is not exploring ‘whether’ LGBTQ persons will be fully-included in the life of The UMC, but ‘how’” we include them. Yet allowing same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals in some parts of The United Methodist Church would violate the consciences of many traditionalists and be unacceptable. A variety of different approaches will be on the table. These are the kind of pragmatic realities that the commission will be wrestling with.

The commission is just beginning its work and has a lot of ground to cover, as we examine such things as the theological foundations of our unity and identity as global United Methodists and discover how other denominations have navigated the same challenge we face. While these issues take the forefront of our attention, we are also mindful of the worsening decline of membership and worship attendance in United Methodism in the U.S. and our need to provide a way for the revitalization of our church in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We face a tall challenge, and only the grace of God and the prayers of our church will enable us to work our way to a successful outcome.