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.