Traditionalists, bishops talk church future

Traditionalist advocates met in private with United Methodist bishops from Africa, Europe and the Philippines to listen and discuss the denomination’s future — with separation raised as a distinct possibility.

Leaders of the Renewal and Reform Coalition, which includes four U.S.-based advocacy groups, requested the conversation with the central conference bishops while the full Council of Bishops is meeting in a hotel near Chicago. Central conferences are church regions outside the United States.

The groups represented included Good News, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church and the Wesleyan Covenant Association. More than a dozen central conference bishops attended, as did a few U.S. bishops.

Initially, Bishop John K. Yambasu, head of the Africa College of Bishops, told United Methodist News Service the meeting late May 7 would be open to all. But after coalition leaders expressed discomfort with the presence of the press, Yambasu urged the UMNS reporter to wait outside the ballroom.

“I think there is hope. We still can lead in the midst of chaos, and the only way we can do this leading is through ongoing conversation,” Yambasu said after the meeting, which lasted a little over two hours.

The bishop, who also leads the Sierra Leone Conference, said he and other church leaders don’t want to wait to have deep conversations until the next General Conference meets in May 2020. “It will be too late,” he said. “It will be a disaster.”

Bishop Joaquina Filipe Nhanala, who leads conferences in Mozambique and South Africa, called the discussion “fruitful.”

“When people begin talking, they may be moving into something,” she said.

The evening conversation came as the Council of Bishops has been working through what happened at the 2019 special General Conference in St. Louis. That meeting focused on the denomination’s longtime debate around the role of LGBTQ people in the church. Bishops don’t have a vote at General Conference, but they can influence debate.

The February gathering of the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly saw a majority of delegates adopt the coalition-backed Traditional Plan that strengthens enforcement of church prohibitions against same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. Many of the votes for the plan came from Africa, the Philippines and eastern Europe.

Delegates also passed coalition-supported legislation to allow churches under certain conditions and financial settlements to leave the denomination with their property. The legislation effectively suspends the denomination’s centuries-old trust clause until 2023.

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of Good News and one of the primary authors of the Traditional Plan, said he told those gathered he sees two pathways forward at next year’s General Conference.

One option, he said, would be to continue on the path from St. Louis and increase the accountability in the Traditional Plan. Specifically, he believes delegates can fix the portions that the denomination’s top court, the Judicial Council, struck down as violating the denomination’s constitution.

Among those portions were requirements that conferences certify they will uphold standards on homosexuality — or be removed from the denomination. The Judicial Council said these provisions would need to require all church law be followed without distinction.

The other option could be a negotiated separation with some shared mission, Lambrecht said.

Leaders of advocacy groups that hold various views related to homosexuality, along with some U.S. bishops, have been holding conversations about such a possibility since February. Meanwhile, a number of churches and even conferences in the U.S. and western Europe have announced plans to resist the Traditional Plan.

Not every bishop who attended the May 7 meeting supported the Traditional Plan, and even those who wish to maintain the same standards on marriage expressed concern about splitting the church.

Yambasu told both UMNS and those gathered about missionaries who sacrificed their lives to bring the Gospel to West Africa.

“Now overnight we say we are no longer the church. I can’t see myself living my life as anything else,” he said.

Yambasu also said he hopes the central conference bishops will be able to meet this summer with Uniting Methodists, another U.S.-based advocacy group that championed the rival One Church Plan. That legislation would have left questions about ordination up to conferences and marriage up to congregations and individual clergy.

Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa, who leads conferences in Zimbabwe, said he told the traditionalist advocates that no one has the intention to “shake” the denomination.

“We really love this denomination,” he said. “If we have our way, we really want to remain together.”

He added that he and other leaders are not naïve. “We understand that we will probably not have the kind of unity that goes on as if nothing is happening,” he said. “But let us remain a family. Maybe God will help us to open other ways.”

Bishop Pedro M. Torio Jr., who leads the Baguio Area in the northern part of the Philippines, told UMNS he still has hope for the church.

“This is a global issue that concerns all of us,” he said by email. “All of us want to see a United Methodist Church where God is honored. We all want to be part of the mission where the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is preached. We hear legitimate voices that call us to respect sacred space and safe boundary for all, regardless and in spite of our differing convictions. I believe that in the guidance of the Holy Spirit this hope is possible.”

Retired Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, who served in Germany and now works as Geneva secretary with the World Methodist Council, said she prays that United Methodists can still journey together, but worries the division is too strong.

“There really was a spirit of openness and listening, which I really appreciate and am grateful for,” she said of the May 7 discussion. “But in the same moment, I am afraid there are really not so many bridges.”

However, retired Bishop Elias G. Galvan, one of the U.S. bishops in the room, said one thing he takes away from the meeting is that a growing number of traditionalists want to remain in church with progressives.

“There is movement right now since General Conference,” he said. “And you could hear that from some of the bishops in Africa.”

The Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, made clear to UMNS that the gathering gave the coalition a chance to hear from bishops they don’t meet with very often.

“My hope is that that will inform the kind of decisions that we’re asked to make as we go forward in these coming months, because we care and I am confident people on the other side of the church care about what happens in the central conference areas,” he said.

But Boyette also stressed he doesn’t see a way for people with different views and practices related to LGBTQ marriage and ordination to share the same kind of connection The United Methodist Church has now. Marriage, he said, is a matter of doctrine.

The various perspectives need space, he said. “If you’re under the conviction that you feel you need to do ministry in this way,” he said of those resisting the Traditional Plan, “then it’s better for us to do the ministry separately.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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