Up to bishops to shape Way Forward ideas

United Methodists expecting to see proposals from the Commission on a Way Forward will need to wait until the bishops weigh in.

“We as a commission serve the Council of Bishops, and the bishops serve the church,” said the Florida Conference’s Bishop Ken Carter, one of three episcopal leaders who serve as commission moderators. Carter is also president-elect of the Council of Bishops.

The bishop-appointed commission, which includes 32 members from nine countries, has the task of trying to find a way through the denomination’s impasse around ministry with LGBTQ individuals. The moderators are not members but facilitate the commission’s discussions. The 32 members include nine bishops — one just elected this year.

“Finally, the work that the commission does will flow through the Council of Bishops,” Carter said. “They will take the work that the commission has done. They will respond to it. They will shape it. They will adapt it. And then they will offer it to the church particularly through the delegations of the called General Conference in February 2019.”

Carter answered questions about the commission’s process in a conference call Oct. 26 with around 40 conference and other denominational communicators, including a United Methodist News Service reporter. The two other commission moderators — the West Virginia Conference’s Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball and retired Bishop David Yemba — could not join because of scheduling conflicts.

The aim of the call, Carter said, was to “improve channels of the communications.”

The commission will hold its sixth meeting next week in Nashville, and the following week will present some preliminary ideas to the Council of Bishops for review and possible revision. In late 2017 or early 2018, Carter said, the commission hopes to communicate more to the public about the content of its work.

As with its previous meetings, the sixth gathering will be closed to all but invited guests. Carter told the communicators that all of the group’s scheduled nine meetings will be closed. United Methodist News Service has urged the meetings be open.

“We felt at the beginning that we were working with a group of people that really needed to build trust with each other,” Carter said. “There is a saying that insanity is doing our work in the same way and expecting a different result. And the results we are getting is what happens in the open in public at General Conferences, and really how that gets communicated.”

He likened the commission’s work to diplomacy, which often takes place behind the scenes.

Ultimately, he said the work will become public when it’s presented and debated at the 2019 called General Conference, the denomination’s top policymaking body. The bishops’ deadline to submit their proposals to the 2019 General Conference is July 8, 2018.

The 2016 General Conference, by a 428-405 vote, authorized the bishops to form the commission “to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.” The commission’s mission, vision and scope — developed by the Council of Bishops executive committee — make clear the group also is looking at possible changes to how the denomination is organized.

“In reflection on the two matters of unity and human sexuality, we will fulfill our directive by considering ‘new forms and structures’ of relationship,” says the group’s statement on its scope.

In the call, Carter said part of what the commission is trying to address is how to define or redefine unity.

“That gets to the question of can we live with one Book of Discipline? Or are we currently living with one Book of Discipline?” he said.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s book of policies, since 1972 has asserted that all people are of sacred worth but that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” In later years, General Conference made officiating at a same-gender union or being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member chargeable offenses under church law.

But increasingly some United Methodists have publicly defied these prohibitions as LGBTQ individuals have gained wider public acceptance in various parts of the world. In July last year, the U.S. Western Jurisdiction elected Bishop Karen Oliveto, who is openly gay and married to a deaconess. The Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, has since ruled that the consecration of a “self-avowed practicing” gay bishop violates church law.

Increasingly, some traditionalist United Methodists have been more vocal in calling for accountability and have raised the possibility of  a church split

Carter told the communicators that the way forward for The United Methodist Church would not come only from the top but be built from the ground up. He pointed to many local churches that are able to navigate differing views of homosexuality within their pews.

He urged communicators to share stories of where churches are finding a way forward in diversity.

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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