In finding a way forward for The United Methodist Church, bishops have their work cut out for them.
That’s apparent from talking to delegates to the special General Conference, the lawmaking assembly that will have the final say on whatever the bishops propose when it meets Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri.
The denomination’s Council of Bishops recently held a rare winter meeting to discuss options presented by the Commission on a Way Forward, a group advising the bishops on how to preserve church unity after 45 years of debate over how the church ministers with LGBTQ individuals. It’s a topic on which bishops themselves disagree.
With the special General Conference less than a year away, United Methodist News Service asked delegates of varied views to offer their preliminary thoughts on the current possibilities.
The six delegates who responded to UMNS differed on whether the bishops should submit one or more plans and how they saw the plans being considered.
Still, most expressed sympathy for the difficult task the bishops face.
“If this were easy, we would have worked it out 30 years ago,” said Dr. Steve Furr, a lay delegate from the Alabama-West Florida Conference.
At the end of the meeting, the bishops announced in a press release that they were asking the 32-member Way Forward Commission to continue working on two possible models for the church’s future.
- The one-church model: Under this plan, each annual conference would be able to decide whether to ordain LGBTQ individuals as clergy. Each pastor would be able to decide whether to perform same-sex weddings or unions. Each local church would be able to decide whether to allow same-sex weddings in its sanctuary or receive an openly gay pastor. Those who could not in good conscience participate in same-sex weddings or ordination of LGBTQ clergy would not be required to do so. Central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines — could maintain their own standards on ordination and marriage.
- The multi-branch, one-church model: Under this plan, United Methodists would share doctrine, services and one Council of Bishops, while also creating different branches. 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. Contextual means allowing churches flexibility in ministry with LGBTQ people as best fits their mission field. Annual conferences would decide with which connectional conference to affiliate. Central conferences would remain as they are or could choose to affiliate with one of the three connectional conferences.
Under either plan, congregations that did not want to remain in The United Methodist Church would be able to exit under terms not yet spelled out.
Not listed in the bishops’ press release was what commission members call the “traditionalist model,” which affirms the church’s current bans on same-gender marriage and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. That model also aims to add more strength to enforcement of those restrictions.
While not on the list, the traditionalist model is not off the table, said Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce R. Ough, the Council of Bishops president.
“We continue to think deeply about the values held by traditionalist, centrist and progressive elements of The United Methodist Church and are seeking to consider how these various values inform and impact the various sketches of a way forward,” Ough said. “We continue to invite and welcome new ideas.”
How This Story was Reported
Bishop Bruce R. Ough reads a statement about sexuality and the church from the denomination's Council of Bishops on May 18, 2016, at General Conference in Portland, Ore. Photo by Maile Bradfield, UMNS.
United Methodist News Service reached out via email or phone to 14 General Conference delegates in the U.S., Africa, Europe and the Philippines with a goal of representing the denomination’s geographic and theological diversity. Six delegates — five from the U.S. and one from Liberia — responded.
This story does not reflect a representative survey of the 864 delegates who will be at 2019 special General Conference, but it is intended to give some early impressions on the task ahead.
Bishops preside at General Conference but do not serve as delegates.
“Most bishops are already engaged in dialogue with their General Conference delegations and/or clergy and lay members of their respective conferences to begin the process of reflecting on the key concerns and sketches related to a way forward,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Council of Bishops president.
The Commission on Way Forward will devote much of its final meeting in May to developing resources to help interpret the final recommendations, he added.
“We envision a collaborative process of interpretation and preparation for the special session of General Conference that will be shared by the bishops, commission members, the various delegations and other stakeholders,” he said.
Ohio West Area Bishop Gregory Palmer, who is also a commission member, made a similar point.
“At varying times, the council and the commission have given energy in different places across those three sketches,” he said in a recorded interview for his conference after the bishops’ meeting. “And it’s not always been the same or an equal amount of energy at every moment. But all of them are still possibilities.”
Furr said he personally is intrigued by the multi-branch model but needs more details. He suggested the church might be better served by having just two branches — one progressive and one traditionalist. He also wondered if the branches needed to share the same Council of Bishops.
“Maybe the bishops need to decide, ‘I am a progressive or I am traditionalist, and this is the group I really want to work with,’” Furr said. “If you really do that, then hopefully both will prosper because they are all doing what they believe in.”
The Rev. David Livingston, a delegate from the Great Plains Conference, is open to the multi-branch option. “But that option feels to me more like a separation before the divorce,” he added. He also is skeptical it could pass, since it would require constitutional amendments.
Livingston leads St. Paul United Methodist Church in Lenexa, Kansas, which identifies as a “Reconciling Congregation,” meaning the church advocates for equality of LGBTQ individuals in all aspects of church life.
He sees the one-church model as a compromise — short of full inclusion — but one he can support. The Great Plains Conference submitted similar legislation to the 2016 General Conference. That plan and others like it did not make it out of committee in 2016, but he is hoping the dynamic has changed.
“If the vote we are taking in 2019 is whether or not we approve of homosexuality, I don’t think it will pass,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the vote. The question is: Is our difference of opinion of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination strong enough that it overrides the unity of the church?”
Like Livingston, Randall Miller — a California-Nevada lay delegate to the 2016 General Conference — also sees the “one-church model” as a compromise. He leans in the direction of that plan, but added that members of the unofficial advocacy group Reconciling Ministries Network are not all of one mind.
“I also know that there is some level of angst among some LGBT and allied folks that a fully-inclusive model is not on the table,” he said. California-Nevada is among the few conferences yet to choose delegates to the special General Conference. Miller is a candidate.
The Rev. George Weagba, a delegate from the Liberia Conference and vice president at that country’s United Methodist University, said he doesn’t think anything short of the traditional plan will pass muster with his fellow African delegates.
“In my view, the two (other) plans do not uphold biblical Christianity or the Scripture, which supersedes tradition, reason and experience in our theological thoughts,” he said. “These two plans will definitely change our Book of Discipline’s position on same-sex wedding and ordination, and weaken, if not, undermine our unity. And this approach will not be in the interest of our church.”
The Rev. Keith Boyette, a reserve delegate from the Virginia Conference, is the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. That unofficial advocacy group, at its first meeting in October 2016, put the Way Forward Commission on notice against any break with current church teachings. The group also announced that it would not support any plan that leaves questions of ordination and marriage up to congregations or conferences.
Boyette said those commitments haven’t changed, and his group has “significant reservations” about the multi-branch plan. In the meantime, he said the Wesleyan Covenant Association is working on its own legislation. He also indicated separation remains an option.
“We will continue to evaluate and prepare for next steps to ensure that those who are aligned with us are assured of a landing place in the aftermath of the special called 2019 General Conference should one become necessary,” he added.
In 2016, his congregation submitted legislation calling for a commission to form a plan of separation. That legislation did not make it out of committee.
The Rev. Mike Slaughter, a delegate from the West Ohio Conference and pastor emeritus of Ginghamsburg Church, holds out hope most of the church can stay together. He is part of Uniting Methodists, an unofficial advocacy group formed with that goal. The group announced that it supports the one-church model, which Slaughter sees in line with Scripture’s call for unity.
But he knows that for some, the model will not work, and he expects the one-church model to offer a way to exit with property.
Whatever happens in 2019, he and other delegates predict the church will see change.
“We’re at the point where we can’t keep passing this down,” Slaughter said.
The bishops do not plan to make any determinations on what to submit to General Conference — or even if they will submit one or more plans — until they meet April 29-May 4 in Chicago. The deadline for legislation to General Conference is July 8.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.