Social media is all abuzz in the aftermath of the Council of Bishops meeting that ended Wednesday. The special four-day meeting was called to enable further discussion of the Commission on a Way Forward report – updating and refining two of the three options it had previously presented to the bishops. In a press release [link] and news story [link], we learned further details about the way forward the bishops are envisioning.
This meeting marked the most extensive and frank discussions the bishops have ever had on the issue of the church’s ministry to and with LGBT persons. It is disturbing that such discussions really did not begin until the church was on the brink of separation in 2016. It is good that these conversations are finally taking place.
The two options currently under consideration by the bishops are:
* A One Church Contextual model that is a repackaging of the local option. Under this plan, the language around marriage and homosexuality would be removed from the Book of Discipline. Each annual conference would be able to decide whether to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. Each pastor would be able to decide whether to perform same-sex weddings or unions. Each local church would be able to decide whether to allow same-sex weddings in its sanctuary and whether to receive an openly gay pastor. Those who could not in good conscience participate in same-sex weddings or ordination would not be required to do so. Congregations that could not continue in the UM Church under this new situation would be able to exit the denomination with their property under terms not yet spelled out.
* Multi-Branch in One Church model that envisions the creation of three new branches based on theology, one progressive, one traditional, and one following the local option approach. These branches would replace the current five geographical jurisdictions and would each cover the entire United States. The current central conferences outside the U.S. could form their own branches or could join one of the three theological branches. The traditional branch would maintain the current stance prohibiting same-sex weddings and ordination, with robust accountability within that branch. Other branches could modify or remove the language prohibiting same-sex weddings and ordination in their branches. All the branches would share a few common services and agencies, and there would still be one Council of Bishops. Each annual conference would decide which branch to belong to, and only those local churches that disagreed with their annual conference’s choice would need to vote to join a different branch. Congregations that could not continue in the UM Church under this new situation would be able to exit the denomination with their property under terms not yet spelled out.
This means that the bishops are no longer considering the possible model that would have kept the language on marriage and homosexuality in the Discipline the same, with enhanced accountability to ensure that bishops and annual conferences live by the Discipline. Under this sketch, annual conferences and local churches that could not live by the current Discipline would be encouraged to exit the denomination under generous terms.
It is not surprising that the accountability model is not being considered, since more than half of the bishops favor changing the Book of Discipline’s position to allow same-sex weddings and ordination. For the bishops, the accountability model is too much like separation, and their overriding value is unity.
For the same reasons, it is not surprising that the rhetoric coming from the Council president and other bishops is weighted toward the One Church Contextual model. This fits the desire of many bishops to change the Discipline and still stay together in one church. They cannot comprehend that many evangelicals could not continue in a denomination that condones what the Bible calls sinful behavior. And they believe that somehow the local option plan can pass the special General Conference, even though it failed in the past three General Conferences.
So what does all of this mean for the way forward for our church? The short answer is: not much. Regardless of what plan or plans the bishops put forward, other plans will be on the table to be considered at the special 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. It is not the bishops who will decide the way forward, but the General Conference delegates. A plan for keeping the Discipline the same with enhanced accountability, or a plan incorporating those features, is likely to be put forward despite the bishops’ disapproval. The Council of Bishops has a fairly low influence on U.S. delegates, due to the high level of distrust for the Council, despite the individual regard some delegates have for their own bishop. It is highly unlikely that evangelical delegates in Africa, the Philippines, and Eurasia will vote to change the position of our church, even if it is said that such a change would not affect them.
From my perspective, it is not time for traditional evangelicals to bail out of the United Methodist Church. Nothing has been decided, and the power remains in the hands of the General Conference delegates. We had hoped that the Council of Bishops would present a plan that evangelicals could support. It now looks more likely that will not happen. But for 50 years evangelicals have operated at a disadvantage, and the Lord has enabled our biblically based position that welcomes and loves LGBT persons while teaching against sinful behavior to prevail. We expect that to continue. And if not, we believe that Jesus Christ is still on the throne, and he will guide us into a way in which we can remain faithful. What he asks of us is to stand strongly on his Word and remain faithful.
Please continue to pray for the bishops, the Commission on a Way Forward, and for Good News and the other renewal groups, as we all seek to discern the faithful way forward for our church.