By John W. Coleman
The United Methodist Council of Bishops and its special study commission completed their lengthy deliberations in May, recommending “A Way Forward” for the denomination, as it grapples with long-standing challenges to its unity and uniformity in doctrine and discipline.
Yet, the way forward is no clearer for many who wait for the 2019 Special General Conference to determine whether the church will continue to reject homosexual clergy and marriages or restructure itself so that divergent beliefs and practices can all fit under its big tent.
During the wait, members are being urged to continue talking, praying, listening and learning, all in a spirit of peace, humility and openness to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The Eastern PA Annual Conference will set that example by engaging members in prayer, presentations and brief but candid conversation on its first evening, June 14.
Less than 30 minutes of table talks among diverse members will follow short presentations by Presiding Bishop Peggy Johnson and representatives of the conservative Evangelical Caucus and the progressive Reconciling Ministries caucus.
The Rev. Joan Trout, pastor of Boehm’s UMC in Willow Street, will speak for the former group. The Rev. Sukja Bang, pastor of Swarthmore UMC, and layman Jerry Noone from First UMC in Media will speak for Reconciling Ministries, joined on video by several other members.
All speakers have agreed to address only the Council of Bishops’ recommendation of a new One-Church Model that would place decisions about whether to ordain LGBTQ clergy or to officiate at same-gender unions closer to the congregational level.
The plan would remove restrictive language condemning the practice of homosexuality from the denomination’s Book of Discipline. It would also assure pastors and conferences who in good conscience cannot perform same-sex weddings or ordain “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy that they won’t have to do so. Central conferences — church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe — could maintain current restrictions.
The plan “encourages a generous unity by giving United Methodists the ability to address different missional contexts in ways that reflect their theological convictions,” said the Council of Bishops.
“It is my prayer that people will truly listen to one another in a spirit of humility and love,” said Bishop Johnson. “There is so much more that we agree on than disagree on. The church’s mission is our unity; and Jesus is our guide and strength, as Christ overcomes our walls of division.”
Two other restructuring models offered by the bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward, but not endorsed by the bishops, will nonetheless be included in their report to the Special General Conference, only for its information.
The Traditionalist plan would affirm the denomination’s current disciplinary language and restrictions, but also seek to strengthen enforcement of its laws. The Connectional Conference plan would allow conferences to choose among three connectional conferences for their affiliation, based on their dominant theological perspectives on ordained ministry with and by LGBTQ persons—be it traditionalist, progressive or a combination of approaches. This plan would require multiple amendments to the denomination’s constitution and ratification by annual conferences in 2019.
Detailed explanations of the three models will be available to members after July 8, giving interpreters time to first translate the documents into the denomination’s 10 constituent languages. Those details should address conditional changes in the clergy membership and appointment system, clergy pensions, church property ownership, the likely fate of denominational program agencies, and so on.
Meanwhile, the UMC’s Judicial Council has opened the door for the Special General Conference to receive legislative petitions from more than just the Council of Bishops. The top court ruled recently that any church member or organization may submit petitions (by the July 8 deadline) “as long as the business proposed to be transacted in such petition is in harmony with the purpose stated in the call.”
Determining what qualifies as being “in harmony,” the Judicial Council says, is the job of General Conference itself, “through its committees, officers and presiders” and its “rules and procedures.” Business deemed not in harmony will not be allowed unless approved by a two-thirds vote of General Conference.
“While I understand the rationale for allowing submissions, I am concerned that the limitations on our time, due to the abbreviated conference (Feb. 23-26), will make our work more chaotic than focused,” said the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm, co-leader of Eastern PA’s General Conference delegation. “The delegates will need to enter this General Conference more prepared and more prayerful than ever before.”
With the full plans in hand, the conference will hold five district town hall meetings to discuss them, but primarily the One Church Plan, with Bishop Johnson in the fall. The expansive North District will host two sessions in its eastern and western regions. The bishop and members of our General Conference delegation will also be available for additional meetings and conversation to receive feedback and answer questions.
“Our delegation meets regularly, and we are committed to prayer, dialogue and listening to the voices of our Annual Conference,” said Taylor-Storm. “Our listening sessions will provide space for lay and clergy to share concerns and questions.”
She added that a comment box for questions or concerns, located in the Annual Conference registration area, will be available; and delegation members are willing to visit and talk with individual churches and Mission Connections. (Send visitation requests to delegation co-chairs: the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm at email@example.com or Judy Ehninger at firstname.lastname@example.org.
District Town Hall Meetings with Bishop Peggy Johnson
to discuss Commission on the Way Forward Proposals and the Council of Bishops’ recommendation. Church locations to be announced.
Meanwhile, several districts and mission connections are holding additional dialogues to offer more time and opportunity for listening, learning and holy conferencing. South District clergy will dialogue around tables Sept. 12 at Berwyn UMC. The Philadelphia Mission Connection will host Bishop Johnson for remarks and dialogue June 5.
And the North District held an amicable, half-day Dialogue and Discovery gathering of about 40 members on Saturday, April 28, at Asbury UMC in Allentown.
Shared viewpoints ranged from conservative to progressive at that event. Five small groups addressed questions about their faith values and core convictions and about resources available for those who seek unity and understanding. Some answers centered on:
“If we start splitting up, where will it end?” asked one group. “Embrace the things that unite us,” said another. “Our way forward is about getting along when we disagree, not about getting us all to agree.” That group urged members to be “honest about where we are stuck, but stay in dialogue.… Work at not perpetuating the polarization that prevents us from discussing or changing our perspectives.”
For helpful resources, participants recommended several books, including The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute, God and the Gay Christian, by Matthew Vines, and The Great Spiritual Migration, by Brian McLaren. They also emphasized sharing personal stories of faith in action, life-changing mission trips, inspirational pastoral letters from bishops and unifying mission appeals like the former Imagine No Malaria campaign.
The Rev. Anita Powell, Eastern PA Conference Connectional Ministries Director and facilitator of the dialogue, thanked participants “for sharing your honest thoughts, feelings, even anxieties, as we all seek a way forward in Christ.”
Also: Bishops offer One Church plan video
A new video outlining the One Church Plan may help annual conferences prepare for the 2019 Special Session of General Conference. The Council of Bishops offers the video to help interpret the new structural plan they will recommend to conference delegates for the UMC’s “Way Forward.” The council plans to also provide interpretative materials related to the alternative Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditionalist Plan. Use this link to view the video.
The Council of Bishops and The Upper Room launch Phase 3 of their Praying our Way Forward campaign in June, resuming what they began in 2016. Now they want UMs to fast and pray through the Special Session of General Conference, planned for Feb. 23-26, 2019, as the denomination charts a path through its quandary over homosexuality and church law.
The bishops ask us to pray for the church daily for at least three minutes, from 2:23 to 2:26, AM or PM, in recognition of the dates for the 2019 special session. They also invite us to fast weekly — those who safely can — from Thursday sundown until Friday noon.
Meanwhile, she says, all churches should engage in small-group conversations using either the Arbinger Institute’s book The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict and/or the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s four-lesson study The Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness.
More study resources are featured on our conference website’s Way Forward for the UMC page.