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!