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Bishops review Commission on a Way Forward sketches

Posted: November 16 2017 at 06:58 PM

In early November 2017, the Council of Bishops met and received the first report from the Commission on a Way Forward. The Commission’s mandate is to present a recommendation to the Council of Bishops at their May 2018 meeting to forward on to the Special General Conference 2019 (GC19). The bishops on the Commission, including the three moderators—Bishops Ken Carter, Sandra Steiner Ball and David Yemba, led us in reviewing their work and the three sketches they presented to us.

The Commission has kept its eye on its Mission, Vision, and Scope. I believe that this document is helpful in reviewing and evaluating the sketches and potential recommendation. Just a few selected lines:

  • The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition. (From the Mission of the Commission)
  • 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. This unity will not be grounded in our conceptions of human sexuality, but in our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition. (From the Vision of the Commission)
  • We will give consideration to greater freedom and flexibility to a future United Methodist Church that will redefine our present connectionality, which is showing signs of brokenness (From the Scope of the Commission) 

You may have already read about the sketches from the United Methodist News Service which were presented to the Council of Bishops for prayerful discernment:

  • Affirm the current Book of Discipline language and place a high value on accountability. The BOD says the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching” and lists officiating at a same-gender union or being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member as chargeable offenses under church law.
  • Remove restrictive language and place a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
  • Create multiple branches within the denomination that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization, and justice. This model would maintain shared doctrine and services and one Council of Bishops.

Again, through prayerful discernment and in small group conversations, we reflected on the sketches and what they would potentially offer or limit in our way forward together:

  • Each of these sketches had differing understandings of “space,” or the freedom to respond to the local churches’, clergy or annual conferences’ context for ministry; some had more and some had less “space” for contextual ministry.
  • Each of these sketches had differing understandings of what unity is.  Is it uniformity, meaning that we all do things the same way, or is it unity to the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ?  We’re so accustomed to unity as uniformity or agreement.  Can we understand unity around mission rather than agreement or uniformity?
  • Each of these sketches is on a continuum of simple and complex. Is a simpler plan better, perhaps providing a way forward that doesn’t get bogged down in a lot of constitutional amendments, etc.? Or is a more complex sketch able to accommodate many different contexts for ministry while maintaining an overarching umbrella of what it means to be United Methodist?
  • Each of these sketches invites different or more/fewer people to stay or leave the United Methodist Church. But which one(s)? As bishops, we prayed for our church to be such that there is a sense of oneness or unity.

The Commission did not express any preference for the sketches that they have developed and likewise, the Council of Bishops did not vote on or eliminate any of the sketches. Through personal and small group reflection, we made lists of strengths and limitations for each of the sketches so that the Commission can consider them as they continue to do their work. We hope that our feedback will strengthen the Commission’s work.

It is still uncertain whether one or more recommendations will be sent from the Commission to the Council and then on to the GC19. An additional Council of Bishops’ meeting will be held late winter 2018 to continue to consider the work of the Commission before we will need to make a decision in May 2018. Remember, ultimately the GC19 will make the final decisions—not the Commission, not the Council of Bishops.

Our annual conference has the first week of December as its time for Praying Our Way Forward. I encourage you to pray for The United Methodist Church, the Council of Bishops, the Commission on a Way Forward, our annual conference, our clergy and local churches and our delegation who will be the ones who vote on a proposed plan in 2019.

As residential bishops, we committed to holding conversations with our delegations going to GC19, urging them to both study An Anatomy of Peace(by the Arbinger Institute) which we discussed at our meeting, and to discuss the work of the Commission.

The cabinet is presently studying the book, An Anatomy of Peace, and I urge churches, cluster groups or other configurations of clergy and/or laity to do the same; not just to address the Commission’s work but because it is a good resource for these conflicted and polarized times.  It would be an excellent follow-up to the Rule of Christ that Staff-Parish Relations Committees have been trained in over the last three years.

As an annual conference, we will determine ways to engage with the report of the Commission and the Council of Bishops’ recommendation after it is made in May 2018. This will allow for greater understanding of what is proposed and engagement with the delegation from the NIC.

People have asked me how I felt about the Council of Bishops’ meeting. I have to say that I went filled with dread but I emerged “cautiously optimistic” or hopeful. I think we can do this (i.e. find a way forward) but I also know that there are plenty of obstacles and dynamics that could scuttle the less-than-perfect-for-everyone recommendation when the time comes. Now is not the time for “my way or the highway” thinking or rhetoric. Now is the time to truly be in prayer as Jesus prayed on the night in which he was betrayed:

“I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23, NRSV)

I believe we can do this (i.e. find a way forward) not just for our beloved church’s sake but also as a witness in a broken world. And so we sang together:

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

~Bishop Sally Dyck

Resources:

For more information, news and updates on the Commission on a Way Forward visit
www.umc.org/wayforward

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