Heading into its homestretch, the Commission on a Way Forward met this week to prepare its final report for bishops.
The 32-member commission is helping the bishops try to find a way through The United Methodist Church’s decades-long divisions around how the church ministers with LGBTQ people.
That’s no easy task in a denomination whose 12.5 million-membership stretches from countries where same-gender marriage is legal to countries where same-gender activity is a crime.
“By listening and through reflections I have learned — in all humility — that unity, which seems so simple in the church, is fragile because each person has their own personality, their own cultural and religious context, their own education, their own life experiences, and their own truth,” Hortense Aka, a commission member from Côte d’Ivoire, said in a press release.
As with its previous gatherings over the past 15 months, the commission’s second-to-last meeting March 19-22 in Los Angeles was behind closed doors. Its report also is not public.
The denomination’s bishops will use the commission’s report when they meet April 29-May 4 to determine what proposals to submit to the special 2019 General Conference. The commission will meet again later in May to help provide resources for the wider church, including General Conference delegates.
General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, will have ultimate say on what direction the church takes. Nothing, at this point, is final.
At present, the denomination’s Book of Discipline says that while all people are of sacred worth, the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The book bans the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and the blessing of same-gender unions. However, some individual pastors and conferences — regional units of the church — publicly disregard those policies.
The commission is focusing on two options that would alter the status quo.
- The one-church model: Under this plan, each conference would be able to decide whether to ordain LGBTQ individuals as clergy. Each pastor would be able to decide whether to perform same-sex weddings or unions. Each local church would be able to decide whether to allow same-sex weddings in its sanctuary or receive an openly gay pastor. Those who could not in good conscience participate in same-sex weddings or ordination of LGBTQ clergy would not be required to do so. Central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines — could maintain their own standards on ordination and marriage. The model would essentially make legal what is already happening in some parts of the connection.
- The multi-branch model: Under this plan, United Methodists would share doctrine, services and one Council of Bishops, while also creating different branches. The five U.S. jurisdictions would be replaced by three connectional conferences, each covering the whole country, based on theology and perspective on LGBTQ ministry — progressive, contextual and traditional branches. In this case, contextual means allowing churches flexibility in ministry with LGBTQ people as best fits their mission field. Annual conferences would decide with which connectional conference to affiliate. Central conferences would remain as they are or could choose to affiliate with one of the three connectional conferences. This model likely would require amendments to the denomination’s constitution.
“We are seeking to focus more closely on the values that are important to United Methodists — traditional, contextual and progressive,” Florida Area Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr., one of three bishops serving as commission moderators, told United Methodist News Service. “We did work on the proposals but tried to go more deeply into what is important about them to our mission.”
The commission, as a body, has not formed a consensus behind either plan.
Matt Berryman, one of three openly gay commission members, told UMNS that to him either plan falls short of equality for LGBTQ members.
“We are experiencing attempts to change the church such that LGBT people are going to have a greater sense of inclusion, but it is by no means anywhere close to what justice would look like,” he said. “Is it better than what we have? Yes. Does it model the kingdom of God? No.”
Still, he said, of the two possibilities, he prefers the one-church model.
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, another commission member, said the commission meeting was notable for "a very good spirit and brutal honesty in terms of where people are at."
"The same divisions and impasse that are apparent in the broader church are apparent in the commission," he added.
Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News, which advocates for maintaining the church's teachings against the practice of homosexuality. He said he might be able to live with the multi-branch plan, but that would not be his preference. Instead he would prefer a plan that includes great enforcement of current strictures that "graciously allows people who cannot live with that find another venue."
Good News and other unofficial advocacy groups within the denomination already are staking their positions.
Uniting Methodists earlier this month announced support for the one-church model — arguing it is grounded in Scripture, church doctrine and Wesleyan tradition.
In a world torn by polarization, the group said in a statement, the one-church model “provides a countercultural witness of unity in Christ and sets in place a process by which the church will continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
The Wesleyan Covenant Association, meanwhile, has called consistently for greater enforcement of current rules and, barring that, preparations for a church split.
“The WCA is committed to upholding our sexual ethics, definitions of marriage and ordination standards for the simple reason that they are grounded in Scripture and the historic teachings of the faith,” wrote the Rev. Keith Boyette in the first of a series of blog posts on the models.
“Regardless of the recommendation of the COB (Council of Bishops), we will contend for this position through legislation submitted to the special called 2019 General Conference.”
Leaders of both the Uniting Methodists and Wesleyan Covenant Association serve on the commission.
Bishops and commission members have been meeting with various groups of church leaders around the connection to get their thoughts and update them on the Way Forward work.
“I am hearing a deep commitment to our mission in the world — and this is true for our global partnerships and to the essential local acts of service that are a part of the church’s presence in every community,” said Carter, the incoming Council of Bishops president.
“The connection is for the sake of this mission, and many who engage in conversation want this to continue.”
He said he also has heard anxiety and fear from people caught up in the church’s internal divisions.
“Yet this is not where most of our people live,” he said. “This is confirmed for me again and again as I speak and listen with stakeholders.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.