They are praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and trusting in their common Wesleyan heritage to help find “A Way Forward” for The United Methodist Church.
The Commission on a Way Forward has the daunting task of trying to bridge the denomination’s deep divisions on homosexuality and foster church unity.
When this international group of United Methodists holds its first face-to-face meeting next week in Atlanta, they will bring some very different perspectives and experiences. They also bring a shared commitment to prayer and a faith in God who is bigger than human struggle.
In December, the commission held a conference call to pray together. But next week will be the first time many of the members will meet each other. Their first order of business will be to get to know each other and begin to build trust.
Meanwhile, United Methodists around the world have begun 75 weeks of focused prayer for the denomination — “Praying our Way Forward.”
United Methodist News Service asked each of the 32 commission members and the three bishops serving as moderators about their prayers are as the group begins its work, as well as where they see potential agreement. More than 15 responded.
“So many sisters and brothers around the connection are praying about this work and trusting God to lead us,” said Scott Johnson, a member from the Upper New York Conference. He helped deliver the laity address at last year’s General Conference.
“I'm confident that my sisters and brothers on the commission have been doing the same. Trusting that, my hope is that we come to this work knowing that we are not in this alone. I also hope that we make space for God to do something unexpected.”
Jacques Umembudi Akasa of the Democratic Republic of Congo sees similar promise for the work.
“I think there is reason to hope because it is the wishes of many Methodists,” the United Methodist missionary said in French. “Obviously the task is complex, but we have faith.”
The Rev. Casey Langley Orr, associate pastor of discipleship at First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, said that in preparation, she has centered herself by repeating three beloved prayers: the Prayer of St. Francis, the Breastplate of St. Patrick and the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer.
“While it is difficult to know what exactly to expect as our conversations begin, my hope is that each of us can aim to be instruments of peace, to recognize Christ in one another, and to remember that we serve and represent God first,” said Orr, a deacon.
The commission includes eight bishops, 13 other clergy and 11 lay members who will all have a vote in the group’s deliberations. The three moderators don’t vote. Members come from nine countries, including the United States, and 14 U.S. states.
The group includes 14 women and two openly gay men. It also has leaders of advocacy groups that have long taken opposing stands on ministry with LGBTQ individuals and biblical interpretation.
General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, in May authorized the bishops to form the commission just a day after rumors of a potential church split over homosexuality reached a fever pitch.
In following months, many clergy and candidates came out as gay, multiple conferences urged noncompliance with church prohibitions related to homosexuality, and the Western Jurisdiction elected and consecrated Bishop Karen Oliveto, a married lesbian. The Judicial Council, the denomination's top court, plans in April to take up a petition related to her election.
Meanwhile, The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a new group started to boost the denomination’s evangelical voice, has put the commission on notice against any break with current church teachings.
The commission will examine and possibly recommend changes to the denomination’s Book of Discipline, which since 1972 has stated, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The bishops’ executive committee also has decided that the group will explore new ways of being a global church in different cultural and theological contexts.
“The United Methodist Church is in an unprecedented place, and there is a great deal at stake. At the same time, we are in God’s hands, and God is faithful,” said Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter, one of the three moderators.
“I am praying for the members of the commission. By design, we are men and women of diverse talents, gifts and perspectives, and yet this is the Body of Christ.”
MyungRae Kim Lee, executive director of the National Network of Korean United Methodist Women, has looked to Matthew 7:7 for inspiration.
“I personally believe that as we keep on asking, seeking, and knocking, with the guide of the Holy Spirit, we will be able to find a new way to forward,” said Lee, a member of the New York Conference.
Points of agreement
Leah Taylor, a Texas Methodist Foundation representative and member of the Texas Conference, said she and other commission members share a sense of honor and heavy responsibility in their role. She also hopes members will find a shared vocabulary “that is kind, thoughtful and generous to all.”
“Personally, I am joyful and fearful at the same time,” she added.
The Rev. Donna Pritchard, senior minister of First United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon, said she trusts the whole commission will come ready to listen to God and each other.
Alice Williams of the Florida Conference said she expects agreement that United Methodists can do more collectively than divided.
The Rev. Tom Berlin, lead pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, said his experience is that all United Methodists share a common desire to see the reign of God in the church and in the world.
On matters of sexuality specifically, David N. Field also sees reason for hope. The coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Switzerland said he thinks commission members can reach an agreement “on many significant issues as to what the church should affirm as the appropriate context for sexual relationships.”
Points of contention ahead
Even as commission members talk about their common faith, some already express divergent views of where they expect the body to end up.
Matt Berryman is the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, an advocacy group that urges the denomination to include LGBTQ individuals in all aspects of church life, including ordination and marriage.
He believes the commission’s role “has less to do with re-litigating the anachronistic question of whether or not same-sex love and LGBTQ persons are compatible with Christian teaching and much more to do with the urgent necessity we now face to create an inclusive church in the face of ongoing harm and discord.”
Patricia L. Miller is the executive director of the Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church, an advocacy group that urges the denomination to hold the line on homosexuality teachings.
She believes “the strongest argument within the commission will be recognition of the great decision within The United Methodist Church and the church can no longer continue with the turmoil that exists currently, and that the commission understands it must bring a proposal or proposals to address A Way Forward.”
Seeking end to conflict
Dave Nuckols, Minnesota co-lay leader and Reconciling Ministries Network board member, says he prays that the commission will help the denomination “live into Jesus' example of radical inclusion of all persons — including LGBTQ persons — and shift our energy from arguing amongst ourselves and instead evangelize the unchurched.”
The Rev. Jessica LaGrone, dean of the chapel of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and a leader of the new Wesleyan Covenant Association, wants “to see the church find a way out of the loop of ongoing conflict that honors Scripture and cares for individuals and the local churches that minister to them.”
Zimbabwe Area Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa said that he expects there is no way to develop “A Way Forward” that will be acceptable to all United Methodists. Some will leave the denomination no matter what happens, he said with sadness.
However, he said, he sees a way to avoid a real schism.
“What is encouraging as far as I am observing is that most people are looking forward to ‘a way forward,’ which will not split the denomination,” he said.
Any recommendations from the new commission would need the approval of General Conference. The Council of Bishops is considering calling a special General Conference in 2019.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Côte d'Ivoire native Isaac Broune, a member of United Methodist Communication’s French content team, contributed to this story. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].