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.