Some United Methodists expressed cautious optimism for a special commission entrusted with finding a way through the denomination’s impasse on homosexuality.
Still others expressed deep concern about which groups do not have a seat at the table.
Now that bishops have announced the 32 members of the Commission on a Way Forward, the group’s makeup already faces divergent responses and some distrust. If anything, the reaction underlines the tough task before this international body of United Methodists charged with preserving denominational unity where other Protestant bodies have splintered.
Who is On the COmmission?
See full list of members here
Among their concerns, United Methodists worry the group lacks representation of laity, global diversity and the full spectrum of LGBTQ church members.
“We acknowledge that, given the parameters of a global church on four continents, the desire for representation and the practice of a democratic polity, there will be keen interest, speculation and questioning of the commission’s composition,” said Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Council of Bishops president.
The group’s mission is to bring together people deeply committed to The United Methodist Church to explore the denomination’s future. The commission will examine all the church’s teachings related to homosexuality and possibly recommend changes. It also will consider new forms and structures for the denomination to be in relationship across cultures and nations.
Anything the group recommends ultimately will need the approval of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, which authorized the group’s formation in May and could meet again as soon as 2018. The commission’s first meeting has not been announced.
A group of more than 60 openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning United Methodist clergy and clergy candidates released a letter Oct. 26 critical of their community’s lack of representation. They also take issue with the bishops’ characterization of the commission’s focus as “human sexuality.”
“It is not talking about ‘the present impasse related to human sexuality,’ rather, it is talking about us, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex children of God, and about whether or not the denomination we serve will continue its 44-year discrimination against us,” the letter said.
One thing United Methodists do agree on: The commission will need their prayers.
“If there were a simple solution, with all the minds we have in The United Methodist Church, it would have come up a lot sooner,” said Dr. Steve Furr, past president of the denomination’s Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders.
“But these are some brilliant people, and there is a good bit of diversity. Hopefully, they will come up with a plan to move us forward.”
Criteria for membership
The commission includes eight bishops, 13 other clergy and 11 lay members who will all have a vote in the group’s deliberations. Members come from nine countries, including the United States, and 14 U.S. states. The group includes 14 women and two openly gay men.
The group also will have three bishops as moderators who will not have a vote.
Ough said bishops used eight criteria in selecting members from more than 300 nominees.
- People who have core convictions but also demonstrated experience in working across lines for unity and reconciliation
- Theological diversity from progressive to centrist to traditional/evangelical
- People experienced in these conversations and others who bring fresh perspectives
- Racial diversity, knowing that within groups, not every theological or political perspective could also be honored
- A range of ages and gender inclusivity
- Individuals in and related to the LGBTQ community
- Composition roughly comparable to the U.S. and central conference membership of the church
- Symmetry between bishops, clergy and laity, understanding that while laity and clergy will vote at General Conference, bishops have the responsibility to lead the church
Concerns about laity
The bishops already added three laity after hearing concerns that a lack of laity goes against usual church practice. For example, delegates to General Conference are evenly split between lay members and clergy, and bishops do not have a vote.
Irene R. DeMaris, a lay member from Virginia and a lead organizer of a petition calling for more lay people, expressed gratitude that Ough responded to her petition and something tangible was done.
“Moving forward, we will see if this impact made a larger difference,” she said. “I remain cautiously optimistic, but place my hope with God’s abundant grace. Grace that Bishop Ough needs, the commission needs, the laity who are speaking up need, our clergy need and I need.”
“The Wesleyan Covenant Association pledges to pray for the Commission, and will wait patiently for it to complete its work. We hope that the commission will propose a plan that will restore integrity, call for accountability, and bring good order of our church’s polity. If they cannot find a plan forward that does these things, then we believe the commission should develop a plan of separation that honors the consciences of all the people of the church and enables us to move forward in peace and goodwill.” — The Rev. Jeff Greenway, chair of the new Wesleyan Covenant Association, which considers the church’s teachings against the practice of homosexuality part of Christian orthodoxy
“Having employees of caucus groups on the commission is problematic. The caucus groups have firm beliefs about LGBTQ inclusion and exclusion, and the employees are amenable to their organizations' boards, unlike clergy and laity in other situations. The work of this commission needs to be amenable only to the Holy Spirit and not personal employment expectations.” — The Rev. Jeremy Smith, blogger and minister of discipleship at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon
“I thought our bishops should have (presided over the commission) and not be the commissioners. Their inclusion may compromise their leadership as neutral facilitators.” — The Rev. Forbes Matonga, pastor-in-charge of the Nyadire United Methodist Mission in Zimbabwe
“The very nature of the Gospel propels me to have hope. However, the very nature of the composition invites the question: Who will be the voice of compromise and unity? What outside facilitators will we use to help the commission not if but when it becomes stuck?” — The Rev. Maria Dixon Hall, a deacon and associate professor of corporate communications and public affairs at Southern Methodist University in Dallas
“A commission of 35 members (including moderators) looks more like a convention than it does a commission. Studies show that beyond about 15 as a maximum size, groups don't function as working groups for any practical purpose.” — Lonnie Brooks, former lay leader of the Alaska Conference
“We believe we have assembled a commission whose diverse voices and experiences give us the best chance to find a way forward. However, this will be dependent, in large part, on the commission developing a trusting and prayerful environment and being fully surrendered to the movement of the Holy Spirit.” — Bishop Bruce Ough, Council of Bishop president
Concerns about global representation
The commission has representatives from all five of denomination’s U.S. jurisdictions and six of its seven central conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. However, it does not have anyone from the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference.
That central conference stretches from Norway to Russia, encompassing 14 countries and 11 time zones. Attitudes and laws regarding gay individuals vary widely across the conference.
Audun Westad, a lay member of the Norway Conference, said a voice representing such a diverse region might help the church through its divide. He helped write a resolution supporting the commission, which won approval at the central conference’s just-completed meeting
“We span the whole spectrum of opinions on many topics, and yet we manage to show respect and treat each other with love,” Westad said. “We do not get everything right in our central conference — far from it — but we do have a good tradition of talking together and finding solutions together. Given the state our church is in at the moment, I think we have a good tradition to bring into the commission.”
Concerns about LGBTQ representation
By far, the most vehement criticism has come from United Methodists who advocate for the full inclusion of the LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church.
The Rev. Amy DeLong, a lesbian pastor in Wisconsin and a member of Love Prevails, which advocates changing the church’s stance by disruption if necessary, said she found it “startling and unconscionable” that there are no out lesbians or transgender individuals on the commission.
The Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, one of the organizers of the clergy letter to bishops, raised a similar alarm.
“As faith leaders, we believe that all is possible in faith, but false hope is more harmful than hopelessness,” he said in a statement. “How much progress can we reasonably expect when our distinct voices are still being silenced or ignored?”
Bishop Karen Oliveto, who is openly gay and married, has a different take. Her election this summer despite the church’s ban on the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy will be part of the commission’s conversation.
She said her prayer for the commission is that they may learn how God is at work in the lives of LGBTQ United Methodists.
“With the help of the Holy Spirit, may the committee members discern a way for us to live together even with our differences. Christ’s love unites us, even when we disagree.”
Hahn and Gilbert are reporters for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tennessee. Sam Hodges also contributed to the story. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].