The Council of Bishops said it intends to call a special General Conference in 2019, but stopped short of actually making the call — expected after the Commission on a Way Forward begins looking at the church’s teachings on homosexuality and church unity.
The conference would be in February or March, and the council asked the business manager of the General Conference to move forward with exploring venues and a bid search. The 2020 General Conference is already scheduled for May 5-15 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“When we issue the call letter it must be very specific to the purpose of call and dates,” Bishop Bruce R. Ough, council president, said. “We have some work to do on securing a location and we want to be thoughtful about the wording of the call.”
Ough also addressed concerns from United Methodist laity and LGBTQ members on the membership of the Commission on a Way Forward, which is charged with finding a way through the denomination’s impasse on homosexuality. After the names of commission members were released, the bishops received letters and a petition from those who wanted more laity and more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer representation.
Love Prevails, an unofficial advocacy group for full inclusion of LGBTQ, disrupted the meeting of the bishops on Tuesday to express their concerns. The retreat, which the bishops typically hold at the beginning of a new four-year period, was not public except for a session on Nov. 2.
Ough said the makeup of the commission is final, however, all bishops were asked to invite the clergy and laity in their areas into a conversation about the mission of the church.
“We are asking if anyone envisions models of how we can remain united with our differences,” he said. “We all recognize a 32-member commission is small when you look at the size of our denomination.”
Phoenix Area Bishop Robert T. Hoshibata said the bishops were on a good course, but there is still much work.
“We have discovered that there are concerns about representation, whose voice is heard. I trust those who are on the commission are sharing the strong voice of others … those who we hope will be part of our church but who are not yet a part,” he said.
Praying for the church
Birmingham Area Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett and retired Bishop Al Gwinn, co-chairs of the Praying Our Way Forward Initiative, announced the second phase of that effort, which involves each conference making a commitment to come together in prayer during a designated week. The effort would begin January 1, 2017, and continue into 2018. The first phase involved a commitment from bishops for daily prayer focused on the selection and initial efforts of the Way Forward Commission.
Wallace-Padgett said that the 84 bishops on the council are each praying 15 minutes a day for the commission. “That’s 21 hours of prayer a day for the work of the Commission on a Way Forward,” she said.
“We want the church and the Commission on a Way Forward to be led by God. This prayer emphasis puts us in a posture where as a church we are asking and listening for God’s leadership,” said Wallace-Padgett. “Our prayer focus is twofold: We are praying that God will help us to more effectively fulfill the mission of the church. And we are praying to be one in Christ.”
Wallace-Padgett said bishops are now inviting United Methodists to pray daily for the church’s effectiveness in fulfilling its mission of making disciples and for the outcome of the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. They also called on United Methodists to participate in their conference’s week of prayer and to fast weekly as they are able for The United Methodist Church and its future.
Gwinn said The Upper Room has developed a website called UMCprays.org. “The website features many tools and resources to help you to plan your week of prayer,” he explained. “Each week will feature information about what is happening in the conference that is praying that week, including a prayer-focused blog written by the bishop in that area.”
Ough stressed the importance of the prayer initiative.
“We need to begin to prepare the church for whatever might come out of the commission,” Ough said.
Logistics of called session
Business considered at a special called General Conference, provided for by the church constitution, would be limited to the purpose defined within the call.
“A requirement that materials be in the hands of delegates at least 230 days before such a session makes it unlikely that the commission could complete its work in time to meet that deadline for a 2018 meeting, so 2019 seemed to us to be the best option,” Ough said. “The purpose of broadening the timeframe to either February or March is to afford more flexibility in finding a suitable and available location.”
The 2016 General Conference delegates, or their lawful successors, would serve at the special called conference, unless an annual conference prefers to have a new election.
The council received a report from the Commission on a Way Forward moderators about composition of commission membership, a plan for the first meetings and a strategy for communication.
Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].