Way Forward sketches ideas to present bishops

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The Commission on a Way Forward is sketching possibilities for The United Methodist Church’s future that it will present to the denomination’s bishops in November.

Commission members, meeting in Berlin, expressed a need for church unity while acknowledging different theological perspectives around homosexuality, according to a press release.

As with its previous meetings, the group’s fifth gathering on Sept. 18-20 was open only to members, the three bishop moderators and invited guests. The group previously has said it would wait for preliminary approval from the Council of Bishops in November before unveiling any proposals.

The commission has started looking at missional and institutional models for a way forward through the denomination’s impasse over same-gender marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. Those models take into consideration factors identified in the group’s August status report.

“While we are exploring models of a way forward, we are sketching them with a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other,” said Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter, one of the commission’s three moderators, in the press release.

He added that the commission knows United Methodists “want space from each other because of theological differences and the harm we have done to each other — and at the same time connection because this is in our DNA.”

“We are the one Body of Christ with many members, and God uses this diversity to offer grace and healing to the world.”

This was the first meeting the bishop-appointed, multinational commission held outside the United States. About 44 percent of the world’s 12.7 million United Methodists live in central conferences — church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe.

Eleven of the commission’s 32 members come from the central conferences. Specifically, seven are from Africa, two from the Philippines and two from Europe.

Meeting in Berlin was an opportunity for members from Africa and Europe to travel for shorter distances. It also helped members see the implications of their work in a non-U.S. context, the press release said.  

During the meeting, commission members engaged in one-on-one dialogues, delving deeper into how the church ministers with LGBTQ individuals. At least three commission members are openly gay.

The values that guided conversations, according to the press release, included the hope to multiply the denomination’s Wesleyan witness, a call for fruitfulness and a desire for de-centralization and simplicity in church structure.

David Field, a South African native who is a theologian in Switzerland, discussed the different perspectives around the central conferences.

He also challenged members to think of the gospel from the perspective of the church’s LGBTQ members.

“During this period of constant struggle, is the gospel good news to the LGBTQ community?” he said. “The gospel could only be good news if it is good news for the LGBTQ community.”

The commission, authorized by General Conference 2016, is looking at new ways to be connected in a global denomination where many United Methodists view the practice of homosexuality as a sin while many others view restrictions on LGBTQ individuals as sinful discrimination.

Hortense Aka, a lay leader and psychology professor from Côte d’Ivoire, told fellow commission members during her devotion that she is “totally convinced that together we can get through this, and with the hope we have, we can get through this together.”

Mazvita Machinga, a commission member and dean at United Methodist Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, was similarly hopeful, while also urging fellow members to be sensitive to ministry contexts outside the United States.

“The meeting sees us going deeper into our mandate for finding a way forward, and I am quite optimistic that a way forward that will keep our church together is on the way,” she said.

At least a few commission members also belong to United Methodist advocacy groups that have raised the possibility that the differences on matters of marriage and ordination could be church dividing. The groups are Good News, the Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

In two August blog posts ahead of the commission’s meeting, the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, a commission member,  wrote about why he sees the denomination’s teaching around homosexuality as essential doctrine. Lambrecht is also a leader in Good News and the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

The Book of Discipline, which contains church teachings, since 1972 has stated that all individuals are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

To affirm same-sex relationships, Lambrecht wrote, would among other things, undermine the reliability and authority of Scripture and create a church with mixed messages about marriage and sexuality.

“We would be better served by acknowledging reality and creating structural separation that would allow people to engage in ministry unhindered by continued conflict over an issue that many deem essential to the Christian faith,” he concluded.

Other commission members see the dispute differently. This month, commission members Dave Nuckols of Minnesota and the Rev. Tom Berlin of Virginia helped launch a new group, called the Uniting Methodists Movement, which specifically doesn’t see differences around marriage and ordination as church dividing. Field plans to address the group’s Uniting Conference in November.

In the post-meeting press release, Lambrecht said he was impressed that commission members “engaged ever more deeply around the issues that divide us as well as those that unite us.”

But he added that the commission still has a lot of work to do.

The commission will next meet Oct. 30-Nov. 1 in Nashville, Tennessee.

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.

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