Amid growing concerns for the denomination’s future, United Methodist bishops approved a plan for establishing a commission dealing with church teachings on homosexuality.
The bishops’ executive committee also took a step toward a special session of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, in early 2018.
The Council of Bishops executive committee met July 19-20 in Chicago behind closed doors to discuss creating the Commission on a Way Forward, which General Conference authorized in May. The full council has charged its 17-member executive committee with developing a framework for the new commission.
Many United Methodists see the panel as a last-ditch effort to keep the multinational denomination from splintering.
Church members have long debated the denomination’s bans on same-gender weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. However, the bishops acknowledged that the denomination’s landscape has changed dramatically since the most recent General Conference, and they face mounting pressure.
In the past two months, a number of conferences voted not to conform with church restrictions related to ministry with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning individuals.
Meanwhile, a group of United Methodists announced the formation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a member-based network for congregations that regard the church’s teachings on homosexuality as part of Christian orthodoxy.
Most recently, the Western Jurisdiction elected Bishop Karen Oliveto, who is openly gay and married to a deaconess.
These moves “have opened deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church and fanned fears of schism,” said Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Council of Bishops president, in a detailed statement. “The church finds itself in an extremely fragile, highly contested season.”
The South Central Jurisdiction had already asked the Judicial Council, the church’s high court, to review Oliveto’s election. The bishops’ executive committee urged “respectfully” that the court put the matter on the docket for its next meeting, Oct. 25-28.
Nevertheless, Ough told United Methodist News Service he believes bishops and others remain committed to the unity and mission of the denomination. He said that includes even church members frustrated by church restrictions.
“I think many, if not most, in the church right now really want the commission to succeed, without defining what that success looks like,” he said. “I think they really want a space, apart from all these actions and reactions, for the commission to work.”
Plan for the commission
At its meeting, the bishops’ executive committee set out the mission, vision and scope of the new commission.
The commission will have 20 to 25 members. The aim is to bring together people who are deeply committed to the future of The United Methodist Church with an openness to developing new relationships with each other. Ough has said previously that his hope is for the group to represent “all the voices of the church.”
The executive committee is asking all bishops to nominate up to five potential members. Individuals already suggested to Ough and retired Bishop Peter Weaver, the bishops’ executive secretary, will be included in the pool of nominees.
The plan is for the commission’s membership to be announced Aug. 31 and for the group to hold its first meeting in October, if any needed visas can be obtained by then. The first Council of Bishops meeting with newly elected bishops is set to start Oct. 30.
The executive committee named as commission moderators Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter, West Virgnia Area Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball and Central Congo Area Bishop David Yemba. Carter is set to succeed Ough in 2018 as Council of Bishops president.
“We wanted folks who we thought would reflect some of the values that we would like to see in all members of the commission,” Ough told UMNS. Specifically, he said, the committee sought people “who are able to listen well and respectfully and have a demonstrated ability of helping diverse groups come to common decisions.”
Ough said the executive committee also wanted to have a moderator from a central conference, church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe. Yemba, who has led the Council of Bishops work on faith and order, will soon be retiring.
The Council of Bishops also will be hiring a professional facilitator to work with the commission. The council is looking for someone with proven international and multicultural mediation skills. Whether the commission’s meetings are open to the public will largely be up to the facilitator.
The executive committee will give updates on the commission’s work every four to six weeks, Ough said.
Scope of work
More than just discussions about human sexuality will be on the commission’s agenda.
“The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition,” said Ough’s statement.
The commission will examine new ways to be in relationship across cultures and church structures. The body also will look at ways to redefine what it means to be a connectional denomination.
“This unity will not be grounded in our conceptions of human sexuality, but in our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition,” Ough’s statement said.
Ultimately, any changes the commission recommends will need approval from General Conference.
The executive committee also began the process for calling a special session of General Conference. It will be up to the full Council of Bishops to call such a session.
“We have a strong bias toward unity, reflected in our consecration vows," Ough's statement said of his fellow bishops. "We are open to unity being defined in new, innovative ways.”
So far, the debate over ministry with LGBTQ individuals involves all three branches of church governance. But Ough hopes the commission’s work will inform deliberation across the whole church.
“If we do this work with complete surrender to God’s unlimited imagination and kingdom purposes, we will be blessed beyond our limited human imagination,” Ough said.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].