Bishops see progress in unity effort, focus on 2 plans

The Council of Bishops wrapped up a four-day meeting here as leaders reported progress in their deliberations about how to prevent denominational schism over homosexuality, with a focus on two possible church futures.

“We’re dealing with a very difficult issue that’s clearly divisive, and yet there’s a real commitment to stay at the table,” said Council of Bishops President Bruce R. Ough on Feb. 28. “There really is a desire to find a way forward, and I think that was reflected in our work this time.”

Ough insisted the council’s relationship with its advisory group, the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward, precludes sharing many details for now.

“We’re not interested in the commission hearing or reading about things until the (bishop) moderators can go back and report to them,” Ough said of the closed-door meeting.

Michigan Area Bishop David Bard serves communion bread to Nordic-Baltic Area Bishop Christian Alsted during closing worship at the meeting of the Council of Bishops. Photo by Sam Hodges, UMNS.

Michigan Area Bishop David Bard serves communion bread to Nordic-Baltic Area Bishop Christian Alsted during closing worship at the meeting of the Council of Bishops. Photo by Sam Hodges, UMNS.

Ough and Bishop Kenneth Carter, his designated successor as council president and a moderator of the commission, did offer in a joint interview that the council discussed sketches for change in the church.

Carter noted that “contextualization” has been a key word for the bishops as they consider options.

“There’s a strong overwhelming desire in the council to see the church remain unified and yet, just by our very nature, we come here from very different parts of the United States and very different parts of the world, and often with different concerns,” Carter said.

In a report to the council, the commission shared two revised sketches based on three models presented to the bishops last November. A Feb. 28 press release issued by the Council of Bishops immediately after the meeting said the two sketches “carry forward many of the values and principles” of the three sketches presented to the bishops last November.

“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,” Carter said in a news release issued after the meeting.

The bishops offered feedback but did not vote on the two revised sketches, instead asking the commission to continue working to prepare a final report to be presented at the April-May Council of Bishops meeting. 

The news release contained a summary of the two models:

  • The one-church model would give 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.”
  • The multi-branch, one-church model would include 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 — progressive, contextual and  traditional branches. Annual conferences would decide with which connectional conference to affiliate.

The press release said the details of the two models in progress could change based on the commission's work at its next meeting.

A traditionalist model, which was among three models outlined to an international group of United Methodist leaders earlier this month, was not listed in the press release. In that presentation, Way Forward Commission members had listed three models, or sketches.

Under a traditionalist model, the church would have continued to declare the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching, prevent clergy from officiating at same-sex unions and prohibit the ordination of self-professed practicing homosexuals.

The one-church model appears to align with a centrist model discussed earlier, which would see the removal of restrictive language from the Book of Discipline, letting conferences decide how inclusive to be, while protecting clergy who could not, as a matter of conscience, perform a same-sex union or support ordination of openly gay clergy.

Ough said that while two sketches were focused on in Dallas, bishops talked about elements of all three that they would like to preserve.

The commission will be asked to refine the sketches, based on the direction of Dallas’ meeting. It’s too early to say the bishops favor one, and a blend might be possible, according to the council president.

“We came out of here with some sense of leanings, which is what we wanted to give to the commission,” Ough said. “We didn’t come to a place of saying we voted on this or we voted on that.”

Carter added that part of the council’s “maturing conversations” was to consider how the different sketches would affect the local church, annual conferences and other parts of the denomination.

During the meeting, the software Mentimeter was used to collect feedback from bishops, but that was to gauge where they wanted to spend their discussion time more than to record specific preferences for plans, Ough and Carter said.

The United Methodist Church’s conflict over how accepting to be of homosexuality has gone on for more than four decades, and the threat of schism was clear at General Conference 2016, in Portland, Oregon.

Delegates instead declared a “pause,” postponing consideration of sexuality-related petitions and creating the Commission on a Way Forward to help the bishops find ways to maintain as much church unity as possible.

A special General Conference to consider legislation coming out of the commission’s and bishops’ work is set for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis.

But the timeline bishops and the commission face is more challenging.

The commission’s last scheduled meeting is May 14-17. The bishops meet again April 29-May 4, their final gathering before a July 8 deadline for legislative petitions to the special General Conference.

Ough said his “aspiration” is for bishops to settle on a single legislative option to recommend.

As the Dallas meeting broke up, other bishops followed their leaders in refraining from any detailed account of the discussions.

They also reflected the cautious optimism.

“We are encouraged by the conversation here in Dallas,” said retired Congo Central Conference Bishop David Yemba, another moderator of the commission.

Bishop Thomas Bickerton, of the New York Conference, said: “It’s great reason for hope that we’re working together, exploring all the options that are before us. I believe in this council.”

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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