“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)
After hymns were sung and scriptures were read, Bishop Peggy Johnson led off a series of five, well-attended town hall meetings in four districts, from Sept. 24 to Oct. 3, with that imperative Ephesians unity-text. Then she waded into PowerPoint slides with summaries, updates and explanations, followed by listeners’ questions, statements, complaints—and even a few testimonies—all about the Way Forward for the UM Church.
The roughly two-hour sessions filled sanctuaries in five churches with church and conference members eager to know more about the controversial proposals, deliberations and upcoming decisions about the future of The United Methodist Church.
The key proposals are those offered by the Special Commission on the Way Forward, organized by the denomination’s Council of Bishops on behalf of the 2016 General Conference. The 2019 Special Called General Conference in St. Louis, Mo., Feb. 23-26, will consider and choose from among all eligible proposals and petitions. But first the United Methodist Judicial Council will review the commission’s 231-page, 48-petition report later this month to determine if its three alternative church restructuring plans pass the “constitutional test.”
Thus, hanging over the five district presentations and dialogues—and several others that preceded it this year—is uncertainty not only about the fate of the three major proposals—and several minor ones—but whether any proposals will be approved at all next year.
Bishop Johnson summarized the Commission’s work and its three proposed plans—the Traditional Plan, One Church Plan and Connectional Church Plan—and their various rules, allowances, implementation timetables and protocols. But she was clear in her support—along with the Council of Bishops—for the One Church Plan, which “gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of the UM witness in as many places in the world as possible.”
That plan eliminates Book of Discipline references to homosexuality being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and deletes the ban on ordaining homosexuals. But it allows each conference and clergy session to determine their standards and protects clergy from being forced to perform same-gender weddings against their conscience.
“There are people of good will on different sides of this issue,” said Bishop Johnson, who called for respectful, informed, prayerful consideration and dialogue about the various plans.
Some of the delegates representing Eastern PA at General Conference (both in 2016 and 2019), gathered on each chancel area stage to offer brief, reflective testimonies before the Q & A sessions with the bishop.
“This has been some of the most difficult work I’ve ever done but some of the most sacred,” Judy Ehninger told the West District assembly at Ruhl’s UMC Manheim. “As delegates we have bonded together in ways that should make the church proud.”
“I’m not looking forward to February,” said the Rev. Joseph DiPaolo, a leader of the new Wesleyan Covenant Association, which supports the Traditional Plan and advocates for churches to be able to exit the denomination with their properties.
“We will need all the prayers we can muster; so please take the bishop’s appeal (for daily prayer) to heart, said DiPaolo, who also sits on the organizing Commission on General Conference. “There’s a good chance that whatever decisions are made, all churches may have to make their own decisions about what to do. Every pastor will have to have ‘the talk’ with their churches. I believe that.”
“I’m not afraid,” said Jane Bonner. “The Lord is our shepherd. He will guide us and heal us in ways we may not be able to understand.”
“The denomination has not been of one mind in a long time,” reflected the Rev. Robert Wilt. It’s a source of tension for many; but many churches have learned to live with the tension and still call people into relationship with Jesus Christ for salvation and the betterment of their lives.”
All four delegates made similar comments to South District members who packed the sanctuary at St. Matthew’s UMC of Valley Forge. They joined the Rev. Dawn Taylor- Storm, delegation leader, there, along with Lenora Thompson and The Rev. Lydia Munoz.
Thompson and others reminded the assembly of the denomination’s legacy of racial discrimination against African Americans, who nonetheless stayed and endured segregation until The United Methodist Church’s creation from merger in 1968.
Bishop Alfred Johnson (retired) visited the East District town hall Sept. 24 and offered a impassioned defense of the One Church Plan “as the best way forward to continue our baptismal and membership vows… and to keep the ‘unity’ in community.”
“The historic genius of our Methodist movement has always been based on a missional pragmatism, and far less on a pattern of beliefs or doctrine,” said Johnson, a former pastor, district superintendent and head of Metro Ministries in the conference.
Comments from the various audiences ranged from the theological to the practical—as in how to implement the various aspects of the three different plans and how they would impact churches and pastors of differing views.
“In the spirit of Holy Conferencing, these town halls brought together people of good will who have varied perspectives,” said Bishop Johnson. “But at the end of the day we agreed about our mission to make disciples and to transform the world. It is my prayer that we maintain the unity of the church.”
For Bishop Peggy Johnson’s PowerPoint slides and other helpful resources visit our Resources on UMC Way Forward webpage.
ZÜRICH — Three oral hearings on Oct. 23 will be livestreamed from the Judicial Council’s fall meeting. One of the hearings is on a request by the Council of Bishops for the court to rule on whether the proposed legislation for the One Church, Connectional Conference and Traditional plans for the 2019 special General Conference is constitutional. The hearings in Zurich will be open to the public and broadcast at www.UMC.org/live, as well as via Facebook at www.facebook.com/resourceUMC. Read press release Read UMNS story