By Erik Alsgaard
In less than a year, The United Methodist Church will reach a crucial
crossroads in its 50-year history. A special General Conference is scheduled for Feb. 23 to 26, 2019, in St. Louis, Mo., to address one topic: how shall the church respond to questions related to inclusion of LGBTQ people? At its heart, the issue is how or if homosexuals should be allowed in church leadership. As it stands right now – and as it has been officially in the UMC since 1972 – “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve” in the church (2016 Book of Discipline, ¶304.3). In addition, the church prohibits its clergy from conducting same gender weddings (¶2702.b).
This issue came to a near boiling point at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Ore. But by a narrow vote – 428 to 405 – delegates decided not to take up any legislation related to homosexuality and instead authorized the bishops to form the Commission on a Way Forward.
The Commission’s task, according to its website, is to “do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.”
The 32-member Commission has been meeting regularly since 2016. In late February 2018, the Commission presented two different models for moving the church forward, according to United Methodist News Service:
One Church Model
- The One Church Model gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible. The One Church Model provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context in relation to human sexuality without changing the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church.
- This model is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one Council of Bishops, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice. The five U.S. jurisdictions would be replaced by three connectional conferences, each covering the whole country, based on theology and perspective on LGBTQ ministry (i.e. progressive, contextual, traditional branches). Annual conferences would decide which connectional conference to affiliate with; only local churches who choose a branch other than the one chosen by their annual conference could vote to join another conference.
The commission, as a body, has not formed a consensus behind either plan, according to published reports.
“The sketches of these two models represent the values, concerns and feedback we have received since we reported to the Council in November. The two sketches provide avenues for unity, contextualization and mission,” said Bishop Ken Carter, one of the moderators of the Commission and bishop of the Florida Area.
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling has been following the work of the Commission and has hope for the manner in which the people of the Baltimore-Washington-Conference can come together as one to craft a Spirit-filled future.
“The Commission on a Way Forward has been meeting, building relationships, faithfully listening to one another and the Spirit, and earnestly developing their recommendations for the Council of Bishops,” she said. “They met for their final meeting last month, and will deliver their recommendation to the Council during our May gathering. If we are wise, we will learn from not only their recommendation, but also their process. They took the time to get to know one another, disabused themselves of their preconceived notions, and really listened to the concerns, beliefs, theological and scriptural interpretations of one another. From hearing their testimonies, they have grown to respect one another above their differing interpretations and beliefs, and have listened together for God’s still, small voice.”
Bishop Easterling notes that the Commission has been using the book, “The Anatomy of Peace” as a tool and framework. She gave each delegate from the BWC a copy. She also encourages members of the BWC to read it, and has added it to her recommended reading list for Annual Conference.
“This resource can move us beyond lines drawn in the sand to a more collaborative and unified decision, all the while respecting our differing beliefs,” she said.
“It is not unfaithful, nor an abdication of our responsibility as disciples of Jesus Christ, to remain united within our diversity. We have done just that since the beginning of our denomination. The only times we have failed to do so is when we split over the issue of slavery, and segregated ourselves over the issue of race,” the bishop added.
“Each of those instances in our history is now looked upon with regret. We do not have to make the same mistake here. We do not all agree about infant baptism, and yet we are united; we do not all agree about the frequency of receiving Holy Communion, and yet we are united,” Easterling concluded. “If we can remain united with differing beliefs about our sacraments, certainly we can remain united within our differing beliefs about human sexuality.
“I pray that we arrive at the Special Session of General Conference in 2019 with hearts of peace, and not hearts of war. I pray we leave room for the Holy Spirit to guide us into a more perfect way,” she said. I pray that we keep the main thing, the main thing, and model for the world what love looks like among a rich, diverse beloved community.”
Baltimore-Washington Conference leaders expect to hold listening sessions to allow area United Methodists to learn more about and to discuss the Way Forward.
Information about those sessions will be announced when it becomes available.
The BWC delegation to the Special General Conference will be meeting in the fall to review the Council of Bishop’s report and the legislation they propose, according to the Rev. TR Chattin, co-chair of the delegation. Chattin serves as pastor of the Sykesville Parish in Sykesville. In addition, all General Conference delegations in the Northeast Jurisdiction have been invited to a joint meeting on Sept. 22, according to Delores Martin, co-chair of the delegation, who attends Good Hope Union UMC in Silver Spring. The location and time of that meeting has not yet been set.
The Commission on the Way Forward, meeting March 19-22 in Los Angeles, began to put the finishing touches on their report to the Council of Bishops. The denomination’s bishops will use the commission’s report when they meet April 29-May 4 to determine what proposals to submit to the special 2019 General Conference.
The commission will meet again later in May to help provide resources for the wider church, including General Conference delegates.
For more information about the Commission on a Way Forward and its ongoing work, visit www.bwcumc.org/resources/commission-on-a-way-forward.