Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I greet you all in the precious name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
My esteemed colleague Bishop LaTrelle Easterling has asked me to speak with you today about the formation and work of the Commission on a Way Forward.
Much has been said and written about the Commission in the two-plus years since its formation, and you may know some of this already, but I think it is important to refresh our memories about how the commission came into being.
I want to revisit the 2016 General Conference and highlight some of the events that brought us to where we are today, as these historic events are the embarkation point for where we will go as a church.
When the delegates gathered in Portland, Oregon, in May 2016, there were numerous petitions before them concerning human sexuality. With protests and talk of schism, this General Conference displayed the anxiety, grief, and distrust that surrounds what is a decades long dispute among us as United Methodists.
On Tuesday morning, May 17, 2016, Bishop Bruce Ough, then president of the council, brought a special message from the bishops to the General Conference:
“I stand before you today on behalf of my episcopal colleagues to tell you I have a broken heart and that, collectively, we have a broken heart. Our hearts break over the pain, distrust, anger, anxiety, and disunity we observe and experience in our beloved United Methodist Church and, quite frankly, also within our council. This brokenness surrounds or emanates from the matters of human sexuality, the interpretation of Scripture, how do we include our LBGQ brothers and sisters, and all is fueled by the despair over the decline of the church in North America …”
Bishop Ough went on to say we, as the council, were not proposing any plans for reorganization or separation:
“It is our job to preside. And as presiders, we are committed to enabling this body, by the grace of God, to perform your legislative function. At the same time, we remain open to new and innovative ways to be in unity. …
See the PowerPoint from this presentation
That turned out to be prophetic, as a new way to seek unity was proposed later that day, when Mark R. Holland, a delegate from Great Plains, stood to, and I quote, “ask the bishops of our church to convene today in order to offer a nonbinding recommendation back to this body tomorrow morning as to how the church might move forward around the issue of human sexuality.”
“I think now, more than ever,” Holland said, “we need the leadership of our temporal and spiritual leaders to move into Holy Conferencing and model for this body how a divided body moves forward for the good.”
Adam Hamilton, a delegate from Great Plains, said “We are in a stuck place at this General Conference. We, in theory, could find ourselves leaving on Friday, still stuck and wounded. You are our leaders. You are our spiritual leaders. I concur with Mark Holland, with Tom Berlin (A delegate from Virginia, who had also asked the bishops for guidance). We need you. I’m pleading with you. Please help us.”
The General Conference approved Holland’s motion to allow the bishops to bring forward a plan by a vote of 428 to 364.
Bishop Ough presented the plan of the Council of Bishops.
Let me read a couple of passages from the council’s statement:
AN OFFERING FOR A WAY FORWARD
Galatians 3:25-29 (NRSV)
But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26
for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29
And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,[a]
heirs according to the promise.
Your bishops were honored to receive the request of General Conference to help lead our United Methodist Church forward during this time of both great crisis and great opportunity. As far as we can discover, this is the first time that a General Conference has ever made such a request of the Council of Bishops, and we accept this request with humility.
We share with you a deep commitment to the unity of the church in Christ our Lord. Yesterday, our president shared the deep pain we feel. We have all prayed for months and continue to do so. We seek, in this kairos moment, a way forward for profound unity on human sexuality and other matters.
This deep unity allows for a variety of expressions to co-exist in one church. Within the Church, we are called to work and pray for more Christ-like unity with each other rather than separation from one another. This is the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21-23.
We believe that our unity is found in Jesus Christ; it is not something we achieve but something we receive as a gift from God. We understand that part of our role as bishops is to lead the church toward new behaviors, a new way of being and new forms and structures which allow a unity of our mission of "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" while allowing for differing expressions as a global church. Developing such new forms will require a concerted effort by all of us, and we your bishops commit ourselves to lead this effort. We ask you, as a General Conference, to affirm your own commitment to maintaining and strengthening the unity of the church. We will coordinate this work with the various efforts already underway to develop global structures and a new General Book of Discipline
for our church. Strengthening the unity of the church is a responsibility for all of us.
We accept our role as spiritual leaders to lead the UMC in a "pause for prayer" - to step back from attempts at legislative solutions and to intentionally seek God's will for the future. As a Council of Bishops, we will lead the church in every part of the world in times of worship, study, discernment, confession and prayer for God's guidance. We ask you, as a General Conference, to join us in this effort, beginning this week. We were moved by the sight of delegates
praying around the table, and we hope these efforts will continue. As your bishops we are ready to join you and to lead you in these times of prayer.
We have discussed in depth the processes which might help our church heal and move forward - up to and including the possibility of a called General Conference in 2018 or 2019. We have not finalized our plans for such processes, but we will keep working on options we have heard from many of you, and we will keep reporting to this General Conference and to the whole church.
We recommend that the General Conference defer all votes on human sexuality and refer this entire subject to a special Commission, named by the Council of Bishops, to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline
regarding human sexuality. We continue to hear from many people on the debate over sexuality that our current Discipline
contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional and global contexts. We will name such a Commission to include persons from every region of our UMC, and will include representation from differing perspectives on the debate. We commit to maintain an on-going dialogue with this Commission as they do their work, including clear objectives and outcomes. Should they complete their work in time for a called General Conference, then we will call a two- to three-day gathering before the 2020 General Conference. (We will consult with GCFA regarding cost-effective ways to hold that gathering.)
We will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another - including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline
. We will continue our conversation on this matter and report our progress to you and to the whole church.
Today, as a way of beginning to find our way forward, we suggest that in place of the allotted legislative time we spend 1-2 hours of plenary time in prayer, confession and exploration of a creative way forward. The bishops are prepared to provide questions to guide your conversations. Your conversations will be the first step to a way forward.
Rev. Hamilton spoke again, calling for the General Conference to approve the council’s plan as presented in the Offering For A Way Forward document. But his motion was not approved (the vote was 438-393).
While this General Conference put our differences and pain under a spotlight, it also showed the hope for the church’s future that lies in our youth.
On that Wednesday, Anne Jacob, a reserve delegate from Eastern Pennsylvania, stood with a group of youth by her side to read a statement on church unity that was adopted by the Global Young People's Convocation and Legislative Assembly in 2014. Let me read a part of that statement:
“Part of the beauty of our Church is that there has always been room at the table for a wide range of theological diversity within our connectional church family. As Wesley said, ‘May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?’ “We urge everyone to seek solutions that promote our global unity as the United Methodist Church, rather than focus only on the issues that divide us, so that we may faithfully live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
The discussion surrounding the proposal by the Council of Bishops was seen by some as postponing action rather than taking an action.
West Ohio Delegate George Howard disagreed. He spoke to urge his fellow delegates to support the council’s plan saying:
“I would move that we accept the report from the Council of Bishops, and we act on the steps that they have proposed to move The United Methodist Church forward.
“I believe we’ve asked our leaders to lead. I believe that they have attempted to put forward in a very short time, a way that would allow us to move forward with dignity that would honor and respect the diversity of our leaders and the diversity of this body.
“That they hold the totality before them of who we are as The United Methodist Church. That they hold in their hearts as our shepherds, the leadership responsibility, and they can put this together. They can name the team that they would respect and that we would be able to stand behind.
“I think we’re ready. I think we’re ready to move forward. This is an action. This is not postponing anything. This is allowing us to move forward with a plan that will keep The United Methodist Church united.”
And in late in the afternoon on Wednesday, May 18, the delegates voted by a small margin - 428 to 405 - to accept the recommendation of the Council of Bishops to delay a debate on homosexuality and agreed to allow the bishops to name the body that would become the Commission on A Way Forward.
I would like to point out that your own bishop, LaTrelle Easterling, who was a delegate from New England, raised her voice in the debate to ask that the council be “fully transparent” about how the Commission would be formed.
“… for us to have trust in those that will be helping to shape this discussion going forward,” she said, “it’s important to know how that commission will be formed.”
And with this discussion, you can see she continues to foster transparency.
The point I am trying to make is that while the Commission’s work was done on behalf of the Council of Bishops, and we bishops are the ones who have proposed a path forward, we are doing so in response to a request for leadership and guidance that came from the General Conference delegates – the delegates who represent all of you as members of The United Methodist Church.
We have been brought to this point, I believe, by the movement of the Holy Spirit speaking in many voices – the voices of clergy and laity, of the young and not so young, of those from here in the U.S. and of those across our global connection. It will take all of us together, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to find the way forward.
You will hear from a member of the Commission on Way Forward tomorrow, but I would like to share a bit about the Commission’s process and its vision and mission.
The Council of Bishops executive committee met in July 2017 to begin the process of creating the Commission on a Way Forward.
In October 2017, after deliberation and some changes to the composition of the Commission, 32 members were selected – 11 laity, 13 clergy, and eight bishops. The Commission members represent nine countries and a variety of theological perspectives. It includes younger persons, LGBTQ persons, professors, administrators, pastors, youth ministers, campus ministers, lay leaders, large church pastors, and persons identified with renewal and advocacy groups.
The Commission described the scope of its work this way:
The work of the Commission on a Way Forward is “to inform deliberation across the whole church and to help the Council of Bishops in their service to the next General Conference in finding a way forward.”
Commission members have spoken of the usefulness of the Arbinger Institute’s book “The Anatomy of Peace” in guiding their deliberations. This is a book that I have recommended to members of the New England Conference, and I would encourage all of you to read it.
The central tenet of the book is about how we view the other – particularly when we disagree. We can look at one another with hearts of peace or with hearts of war. When we have a heart of war, we see the other as an object, but when we have a heart of peace, we can see each other – even in the midst of deep conflict – as human beings.
This was important for commission members who had an arduous task. The Commission met nine times over 17 months beginning in January 2017. Its last meeting ended on May 16, 2018.
The Commission presented its final report to the Council of Bishops during our meeting April 29 to May 4. The Council announced our recommendation of the One Church Plan on May 4.
Although their work is officially over, members of the Commission will work in collaboration with bishops to help equip delegations for their work as we move toward the 2019 General Conference, which will be held Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.
The Commission also created a vision statement, which reads in part:
“The Commission will design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible.”
I think it’s important to note the Commission’s emphasis on understanding that we are a global church with many different contexts for our ministry. I want to spend a couple of minutes talking about cultural context, and share some of the concerns raised by my episcopal colleagues in the Central Conferences.
As we have moved through this process, I know that there have been many fears and assumptions made about the delegates from the Central Conferences.
One of my episcopal colleagues from Africa, a person whom I trust dearly, said to me: “Suda, Africans have great dignity and our own identity. We hope that those outside our continent will allow us to make our decision prayerfully without trying to influence us with words or deeds.
Africans, he said, know our commitment to the global church, and we don’t want to be excluded from the process of discerning our path forward because others feel they know what’s best for us. I understood that to mean “Don’t repeat the mistakes of colonialism.”
As you know, the Council of Bishops has recommended the One Church Plan. This plan, we believe, “encourages a generous unity by giving United Methodists the ability to address different missional contexts in ways that reflect their theological convictions.”
The plan would remove the restrictive language against the practice of homosexuality in the Book of Discipline
, and allow decisions about whether to ordain LGBTQ clergy or to officiate at same-gender unions to be made closer to the congregational level.
Here is a short video featuring Bishop Ough talking about the One Church Plan.
Our report to the Special Session of the General Conference will also include an historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans: The One Church Plan, The Traditionalist Plan, and the Connectional Conference Plan.
The inclusion of information about all three plans in our report has caused some confusion. In response, the council issued a statement on May 18 to clarify our position. Let me read that to you:
The Council of Bishops has voted by an overwhelming majority to share the work done by the Commission on a Way Forward on the three plans and to recommend the One Church Plan.
The One Church Plan will be placed before the 2019 General Conference for legislative action.
To honor the work of the commission, and in service to the delegates to the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, the Council of Bishops will also provide supplemental materials that include a historical narrative with disciplinary implications related to the connectional conference plan and the traditionalist plan. The recommendation adopted by the COB reflects the wide diversity of theological perspectives and the global nature of the UMC as the best way forward for our future as a denomination.
As you know, the report has not yet been released, and I cannot provide full details about our report at this time. We are having that document translated so that all in our global church can fully and readily access it. The report is expected to be released by July 8, which is the petition deadline for the special called session.
In the meantime, the Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on whether United Methodists can submit “valid positions” for General Conference 2019 if the petitions are inconsistent with our report. The Judicial Council heard oral arguments on the matter on May 22, and on May 25 made its decision, which states:
The purpose of the special General Conference 2019 stated in the Bishop’s call is limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward. Petitions to the special General Conference 2019 may be filed by any organization, clergy member and lay member of the United Methodist Church as long as the business proposed to be transacted in such petition is in harmony with the purpose stated in the call.
It is the obligation of the General Conference to determine, in the first instance, through its committees, officers and presiders, acting in accordance with The Discipline
and the rules and procedures of the General Conference, whether any such petition is “in harmony.”
However, business not in harmony with the purpose as stated in the call is not permitted unless the General Conference by a two-thirds vote shall determine that other business may be transacted.
Council of Bishops’ President Bishop Ken Carter released this statement on behalf of the council:
We want to thank the Judicial Council for their service to the church through the affirmation of two key principles—the specific nature of the call for the special session, to receive and act on the report of the Council of Bishops based upon the work of the Commission on a Way Forward; and the General Conference’s authority to decide on what is in harmony with the call.
Our motivation in making the request for the Declaratory Decision is in recognition of the historic nature of the special session of the General Conference in 2019, the need for focus on the stated purpose during these three days, and to create an orderly environment without distraction and chaos, so that the delegates can do their best work.
We are now in a period of waiting to see how the Holy Spirit will move when we gather in 2019. It is a time of uncertainty, and that can be difficult. But as always, there are those who have walked the path before us, and we can draw some wisdom from them.
In 2012, when the Episcopal Church was making its decision about same-gender marriage, the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, ninth Bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of Texas, wrote “Unity in Mission,” which he described as “A Paper on Common Mission and the Challenge Posed by Division.”
Because they approached the topic of same-gender marriage prayerfully and with respect for one another, Bishop Doyle’s Diocese did not lose a single church on either side. This is an insightful document that some of you may wish to read. It is online as a free PDF.
In the document, Bishop Doyle writes about Samuel John Stone’s hymn “The Church’s One Foundation,” which was written in 1868.
He shares the history of the hymn, which was written in response to a controversial book published by an influential Anglican bishop that attacked the historic accuracy of the Pentateuch. Stone, a pastor ministering to the poor of London, was deeply upset by the schism that surrounded him.
Here is part of the hymn’s first verse:
The Church's one foundation
is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is his new creation,
by water and the word:
And from the fourth verse:
Mid toil and tribulation,
and tumult of her war
she waits the consummation
of peace for evermore;
till with the vision glorious
her longing eyes are blessed,
and the great Church victorious
shall be the Church at rest.
Doyle writes about the pleasure he takes in hearing this hymn, saying “These are words today that always move me and remind me of the awesome work we in the Church choose to undertake, and upon whom we depend most of all.”
Thank you for listening today. Please continue to be in prayer for your bishops, your delegation and all the General Conference delegates, and for our denomination as we seek to always remember the one on “whom we depend most of all.”
You will see that we have begun phase 3 of Praying Our Way Forward. There are three steps we are inviting all United Methodists to take between June 3 and the special session.
- Engage in a weekly Wesleyan 24-hour fast from Thursday after dinner to Friday mid-afternoon. If fasting is a health concern, consider fasting from social media, emails or another daily activity.
- Pause and pray for our church’s mission and way forward daily from 2:23 to 2:26 a.m. or p.m. The 2019 Special Session of General Conference is 2/23 through 2/26.
- Pray for a unique cluster of names each week using a weekly prayer calendar that will be posted on the UMCPrays.org.
I encourage each of you to take on these steps as part of your spiritual practice, and to share with your churches so that we can have as many of us as possible praying for our church.