The group charged with fostering church unity is already talking about how it can collect feedback and garner support for the hefty task ahead. However, the Commission on a Way Forward is still in its early stages.
The commission, which held its second meeting Feb. 27-March 2 in Atlanta, must develop proposals aimed at keeping the multinational denomination together despite deep differences around homosexuality.
“I think there is a broad desire to maintain a connection,” commission member the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht said in an interview after the meeting. “There is also a broad understanding that the connection is going to be different because of the theological differences that exist in our church.”
Matt Berryman agreed with Lambrecht’s assessment. “Many people have articulated the not-surprising and deeply reasonable idea that in three or four years, our church is going to look different.”
The two men are frequently on opposing sides in church debates. Lambrecht helps lead Good News and the Wesleyan Covenant Association — both groups that support the denomination’s current restrictions related to homosexuality. Berryman is the executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals in the life of the church.
Still, commission members cautioned that they don’t know what different form the connection will take. The group includes 32 United Methodists from nine countries.
The Rev. Jorge Acevedo, lead pastor of Grace Church, a multisite United Methodist congregation in Fort Myers, Florida, said the commission had a fruitful meeting, “recognizing that we’re a church in crisis around human sexuality.”
“I don’t want to oversell it, either,” he added. “The reality is there are clear differences in the room.”
General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, authorized the bishops to form the commission in the wake of intensifying church debate about the status of LGBTQ individuals.
General Conference called on the commission to 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.
For any proposals to become reality, the commission needs the assent of General Conference delegates and others in the wider multinational church.
That requires getting buy-in from people who are not at the commission’s meetings.
Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, who leads the West Virginia Conference and is one of the three bishops serving as moderator of the commission, said the panel has formed a team that will look at ways to engage the wider church.
Specifically, the commission is planning to listen and engage with annual conference members, seminary students, ethnic caucuses and unofficial United Methodist advocacy groups. The group plans to reach out to various leaders in the church such as bishops and agency boards.
“I certainly have no doubt that engaging and involving other church bodies will go a long way in informing the way forward,” said Mazvita Machinga, a dean at Africa University, the United Methodist university in Mutare, Zimbabwe.
Machinga said that by intentional engagement, the commission hopes to build trust with the church. She also thinks building trust requires commission members “to embrace diversity and be nonjudgmental.”
“Seeking to understand where people are and appreciating the diversity of the global nature of our church is important,” she said.
Regarding diversity, Steiner Ball said the commission discussed the experiences of LGBTQ people in an African context.
David N. Field, coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Switzerland, said the commission members are beginning to grapple with the complexity of the issues.
“There are no simplistic solutions,” he said. “The issues are complex,” he said, but added that there have been good, positive conversations.
Field and others, including Scott Johnson, expressed hope for the work ahead.
“We are very optimistic about our work,” said Johnson, a member from the Upper New York Conference. “There is a great spirit in the room.”
Just as was true with its first meeting, the commission’s second gathering was open only to a select few. No reporters were present, although United Methodist News Service had asked to attend.
Those allowed to attend the most recent meeting included the commission members, the three bishops serving as moderators, and facilitator the Rev. Gil Rendle, a longtime church consultant.
The group also heard presentations on church history from retired Bishop Woodie White and the Rev. Russ Richey, dean emeritus of United Methodist Candler School of Theology.
White, who teaches a “Methodist Church and Race” class at Candler, spoke to the group about the Methodist Church’s racially divided past. From 1939 until the formation of The United Methodist Church in 1968, the denomination segregated African-American churches into the Central Jurisdiction.
Some United Methodists have compared their push for wider acceptance of LBGTQ individuals to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Other United Methodists, who feel current church teachings are in line with Scripture, have strenuously objected to the comparison.
White told UMNS that he did not make any connections between what happened in the past and the commission’s work in dealing with the current debate.
“I didn’t feel I could say these are the ways in which the past impacted their job,” he said. “I said, ‘Listen to what we went through and then you pull from that what you think might be insights to help you.’ ”
White stressed that the church is like a family. "I believe we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and because I believe that, I won't let you write me out of the family and I won't write you out of the family,” he told the group. “That gives me hope, that we are children of God.”
Machinga said White’s presentation, in particular, left her “with a hope for the future, whatever ways that hope manifests itself.”
Bishop David Yemba, one of the three bishops serving as commission moderators, reminded the group United Methodists across the connection are praying for their work.
He offered a meditation about Ephesians 1:15-23, according to a commission press release. Yemba, who leads the Central Congo Episcopal Area, noted that Paul is sharing through prayer the things believers have in common, not only what divides them.
“Above all is that you have the Lord Jesus Christ in common,” Yemba said, “and then you have in common faith in him and you have common hope in him and you have God’s promises in him.”
The next commission meeting will be April 6-8 in Washington, D.C.
Hahn is a reporter for United Methodist News Service. Vicki Brown, UMNS news editor, and Sam Hodges, UMNS reporter, contributed to this report. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.