The Council of Bishops has announced the 32 United Methodists who will serve on the commission charged with bridging the denomination’s deep divisions on homosexuality and fostering church unity.
“After three months of diligent and prayerful discernment, bishops have selected eight fellow bishops, 11 laity, 11 elders and two deacons to serve on the commission," said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, in a statement. “This group is representative of our theological diversity.”
The number of laity marks an increase from the eight the bishops initially planned to appoint.
Even before names became public, some United Methodists called on bishops to consider adding more laity to the commission. More than 500 people signed an online petition urging just that, which the bishops received on Laity Sunday, Oct. 16.
Commission members, listed in alphabetical order by last name, are:
The Rev. Jorge Acevedo
USA, Florida, elder, male
The Rev. Brian Adkins
USA, California, elder, male
Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, laity, female
Jacques Umembudi Akasa
Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, laity, male
The Rev. Tom Berlin
USA, Virginia, elder, male
USA, Illinois, laity, male
The Rev. Helen Cunanan
Philippines, elder, female
Europe, Switzerland, laity, male
Bishop Ciriaco Francisco
Philippines, bishop, male
Bishop Grant Hagiya
USA, California, bishop, male
USA, New York, laity, male
The Rev. Jessica LaGrone
USA, Kentucky, elder, female
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
USA, Texas, elder, male
Myungrae Kim Lee
USA, New York, laity, female
The Rev. Julie Hager Love
USA, Kentucky, deacon, female
Africa, Zimbabwe, laity, female
USA, Indiana, laity, female
The Rev. Mande Guy Muyombo
Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, elder, male
Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa
Africa, Zimbabwe, bishop, male
USA, Minnesota, laity, male
The Rev. Casey Langley Orr
USA, Texas, deacon, female
Bishop Gregory Palmer
USA, Ohio, bishop, male
The Rev. Donna Pritchard
USA, Oregon, elder, female
The Rev. Tom Salsgiver
USA, Pennsylvania, elder, male
Bishop Robert Schnase
USA, Texas, bishop, male
The Rev. Jasmine Rose Smothers
USA, Georgia, elder, female
USA, Texas, laity, female
Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett
USA, Alabama, bishop, female
Bishop Rosemarie Wenner
Europe, Germany, bishop, female
USA, Florida, laity, female
Bishop John Wesley Yohanna
Africa, Nigeria, bishop, male
The Rev. Alfiado S. Zunguza
Africa, Mozambique, elder, male
The bishops’ statement said they added the laity after hearing the concerns. The bishops chose the commission members from a pool of more than 300 nominees.
Three additional bishops will serve as moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward. They are Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter, West Virginia Area Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball and Central Congo Area Bishop David Yemba. Carter is set to become Council of Bishops president in 2018.
The new Commission on a Way Forward is forming just as the intensified debate related to homosexuality threatens to splinter the denomination. General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, in May authorized the bishops to form the commission just a day after rumors of a potential split reached a fever pitch.
General Conference called on the commission to completely examine and possibly recommend revisions of every paragraph in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, related to human sexuality.
But more than just discussions about homosexuality and biblical interpretation will be on the commission’s agenda, bishops have said. 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.
“The commission will design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible,” Ough wrote in July.
Eleven of the group members, including four bishops, come from central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. Specifically, seven are from Africa, two from the Philippines and two from Europe. About 40 percent of the denomination’s 12.4 million members live outside the United States.
Fourteen members, including two bishops, are women.
The commission will be dealing with a denomination that, the bishops attest, is in a fragile state.
The Book of Discipline since 1972 has proclaimed all people are of sacred worth but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The denomination bans the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and the officiation of same-gender weddings.
Church members have long debated these policies. However, that disagreement has intensified as openly gay individuals have gained more public acceptance in much of the world, more countries including the United States have legalized same-gender civil marriage, and more United Methodists have openly defied the bans.
In recent months, more than 100 United Methodist clergy and candidates have come out as gay, multiple conferences have urged noncompliance with church prohibitions related to homosexuality, and the Western Jurisdiction has elected and consecrated Bishop Karen Oliveto, who is openly gay and married.
Meanwhile, The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a new group started to boost the denomination’s evangelical voice, has put the commission on notice against any break with current church teachings.
The group’s Oct. 7 statement says any form of “local option” that leaves questions of ordination and marriage up to congregations or conferences is unacceptable. It also says that the commission needs to find a way to hold clergy accountable for violations or prepare for a denominational split.
Two of the commission members, the Revs. Jessica LaGrone and Thomas Lambrecht, are on the association’s leadership council.
Two other members lead advocacy groups seeking to influence church policy related to homosexuality.
Matt Berryman is the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, an advocacy group that urges the denomination to include LGBTQ individuals in all aspects of church life, including ordination and marriage. He also is openly gay.
Meanwhile, Patricia L. Miller is the executive director of the Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church, an advocacy group that urges the denomination to hold the line on homosexuality teachings.
Forthcoming bishops meeting
Any recommendations from the new commission would need the approval of General Conference.
The Council of Bishops, set to hold its fall meeting Oct. 30 to Nov. 2 at St. Simons Island, Georgia, will make a decision about possibly calling a special General Conference in 2018 to take up the commission’s recommendations.
The bishops also will review a plan to conduct complementary work in conferences designed to broaden the conversation with hundreds of lay and clergy members.
It is not yet announced when or where the new commission will first meet.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.