Commission’s closed meetings find support, criticism

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Is a way forward to be found behind closed doors?

The United Methodist Church’s Commission on a Way Forward, charged with helping the denomination avoid schism amid deep divisions over homosexuality, continues to meet in private.

Opinions about that vary, with some United Methodists saying the difficult task and high stakes argue for letting commission members meet in closed session.

“We have to give them every opportunity to be successful. It’s just so important,” said Judi Kenaston, secretary of the West Virginia Conference and former chair of the Commission on the General Conference.

Others question whether recommendations arrived at in private can win the church’s confidence and insist that closed-door meetings go against the spirit and letter of United Methodist Church law.

“We have an open-door policy in our church that they clearly are violating,” said the Rev. Andy Langford, pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Concord, North Carolina.

There’s a third camp, uneasy about the closed-door approach, but willing to accept it under the circumstances.

“Being in the situation we’re in, we’ve got to give them some space,” said Steve Furr, past president of the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders and a 2016 General Conference delegate from the Alabama-West Florida Conference.

Furr added: “I’ve struggled with that because of our heritage and everything being out and in the open for everybody to see. That’s been drilled in our heads at every level of The (United) Methodist Church, unless you’re dealing with personnel.”

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No one disputes that The United Methodist Church’s decades-old struggle over homosexuality has become acute, with progressives unhappy with church law restrictions on same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy, while those who favor upholding the current Book of Discipline are upset at growing disobedience of those restrictions.

At General Conference 2016, in Portland, Oregon, the Council of Bishops acknowledged the church was in “great crisis” and asked for permission to name a commission to review church law on human sexuality and make recommendations to help the denomination find unity.

The General Conference, by a vote of 428 to 405, agreed.

Last October, the Council of Bishops named a 32-member Commission on a Way Forward, consisting of bishops, other clergy and laity, from across the global connection and representing diverse perspectives on homosexuality. Three more bishops serve as moderators.

The Council of Bishops has set a special General Conference for Feb. 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis. The commission’s work will inform a bishops’ report to that lawmaking assembly, suggesting ways the church’s laws and structure might be changed to avoid a breakup.

The commission has sought input from different groups within the church, and has issued news releases after meetings, as well as videos featuring commission members offering brief, general discussions about their work. After its July meeting, the commission also issued a status report.

But all four meetings have been closed. United Methodist News Service’s requests to cover the meetings have been denied, and representatives of Love Prevails, an unofficial caucus which lobbies for full inclusions of LGBTQ people in the church, have been turned away at the door.

Commission members agreed early to a statement that says, in part:

“We covenant to maintain strict confidentiality, and so we will avoid inappropriate sharing of personal information, stories, or perspectives of other members without their consent. We will not share information about the work of the Commission that the Commission or its moderators have not granted permission for release.”

Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter, one of the moderators, elaborated by email on a key reason for the commission’s approach.

“The missional purpose of a closed meeting might be described as the need to develop trust among members of a body and to seek deeper conversation around contested values and convictions,” he said.

George Howard, who made the General Conference motion that led to the commission’s creation, is persuaded by that.

“For the spirit to move, I’m not sure how this body could do anything but have closed sessions, so that they could discern together and not have the constant pressure from different caucuses and groups,” said Howard, a West Ohio Conference delegate and staff member at the Board of Global Ministries.

But some United Methodists say closed meetings will make it harder to get buy-in for commission proposals.

“I’m sure when they offer their report, one of the first things somebody is going to say, from the left and the right, will be, ʽThey did this in secret,’ and they will question the validity of anything that comes out,” Langford said.

He and others note that transparency has been a cherished value in The United Methodist Church and predecessor groups.

Indeed, the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, the denomination’s law book, says in paragraph 722: “In the spirit of openness and accountability, all meetings of councils, boards, agencies, commissions, and committees of the Church at all levels of the church, including subunit meetings and teleconferences, shall be open.”

Veterans of church boards facing controversy can attest to abiding by that provision, including those on the Committee to Study Homosexuality, created by the 1988 General Conference.

“Every meeting was open,” said Victor Paul Furnish, a retired Perkins School of Theology professor and member of the study committee. “I think it was taken for granted.”

The Book of Discipline provides exceptions to open meetings, such as for personnel and accreditation matters and negotiations. Thus, boards of ordained ministry and the University Senate meet behind closed doors.

And while the Book of Discipline states that the General Conference, Judicial Council and Council of Bishops are expected to live by the spirit of the openness provision, it also makes clear that they are, as constitutional bodies, governed by their own rules of procedure.

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, said that’s why the Commission on a Way Forward can meet behind closed doors.

“We view the Commission on a Way Forward as an extension of the Council of Bishops,” Ough said. “We really do believe that we’re on solid legal ground because this group serves the council.”

Carter noted that the Judicial Council, in a request for a declaratory decision brought by United Methodist Communications in 1999, affirmed the Council of Bishops’ exemption from the open meetings requirement in the Book of Discipline.

United Methodist and secular communicators sent a letter to commission leaders in fall 2016 requesting that the meetings be open. UMNS proposed a coverage plan that it said would have protected the commissioners’ need to speak freely while also enabling access for coverage.

The Rev. Thomas Frank, author of a textbook on United Methodist polity, noted that Methodism’s tradition of transparency and the Discipline’s language on open meetings are both strong, and need to be taken seriously by church leaders.

“Closed sessions should be used as seldom as possible and the results reported immediately,” said Frank, a professor at Wake Forest University. “I do think that’s definitely the spirit of it.”

But Frank is sympathetic to the commission’s challenge and feels members deserve some leeway in how they meet.

“I can see where they would not want somebody to pick up a phrase or an idea that someone was casting out and run with it under these circumstances where there’s so much at stake,” he said. “The church has put enormous pressure on this group to work miracles.”

Retired Bishop Joe Pennel, who teaches church polity at Vanderbilt Divinity School, emphasized that General Conference agreed to the bishops’ request for an advisory commission. To him, that makes the commission an extension of the bishops and able to meet behind closed doors.

“I do feel that way,” he said. “I can see how others feel differently.”

Furr agrees, on balance, with letting the commission meet in private. But he’s wary, fearing that such an approach could lead to “group think” and insufficient feedback from the church as proposals get shaped.

“Nothing much good happens in darkness, except growing mushrooms,” Furr said with a laugh.

Others strongly dispute that the commission can be an extension of the Council of Bishops, given that most commission members are not bishops and General Conference authorized the commission’s creation.

“This is not a subcommittee of the Council of Bishops,” said the Rev. Tim McLendon, a 2016 General Commission delegate from the South Carolina Conference who has taught church polity at Candler School of Theology. “This is something the General Conference created. The General Conference gave the bishops permission to name these people (to the commission).”  

Lonnie Brooks, former lay leader of the Alaska Conference, joins McLendon in believing the commission is required under church law to meet openly.

“Even if the Council of Bishops could be said to have created the commission, the Judicial Council decision that the Council of Bishops relies upon for the commission’s exemption for open meetings only applies to bodies created in the (church) Constitution,” Brooks said.

The commission, he added, is not among those.

Brooks understands the argument that commission members need to meet privately to build trust and candor.

“There’s probably truth in that. I stipulate to that,” Brooks said. “But it’s not worth the price of keeping the information away from us.”

The information will come, just not right away, said the Rev. Tom Berlin.

Berlin was among the 2016 General Conference delegates who called on the bishops to lead the struggling denomination past the threat of schism. The bishops named him to the commission, and he considers it “the bishops’ commission.”

“I am very supportive of the conciliar fashion that the bishops have asked us to work in,” said Berlin, pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia. “This is a way that they’ve responded to the challenge to lead, and I think it’s a good way.”

Berlin said those who distrust the process should remember that only General Conference can change church law.

“There’s going to come a time when this thing is so open you can’t get any more open,” he said.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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