At least that is the claim of some throughout the church as the anticipated ruling of the Judicial Council is released in the last couple of days in April.
The Judicial Council is the arm of The United Methodist Church that receives and rules on requests for declaratory decisions and appeals, determining the constitutionality and legality of a specific action.
So what makes it the Metho-pocalypse? Last summer Bishop Karen Oliveto was elected in the Western Jurisdiction and has been serving as the episcopal leader of the Mountain Sky (Yellowstone and Denver areas) since September 1. The South Central Jurisdiction sent a request to the Judicial Council for a decision as to whether an openly gay, partnered bishop could serve.
Documents were filed and the Judicial Council scheduled an open hearing in New Jersey on April 25. They may discern whether her election is valid (since she was an elder in good standing when elected) or invalid (since clergy are not to be self-avowed, practicing homosexuals). Or they may rule something else. Due to deadlines, this is written several weeks in advance of the expected ruling, and I have no idea how the Judicial Council will rule.
I started by saying “the Metho-pocalypse is coming.” And by that, I mean that there are some churches and clergy who have stated that they will leave the denomination if the Judicial Council rules in a way that they don’t want. How many? It’s hard to say, especially when local churches realize the cost involved for buildings and future pension liability. Clergy who leave will lose their credentials. In other denominations, about 5-10% of the churches left when faced with similar decisions. It could cause a disruption in our annual conference and the whole denomination.
But I encourage clergy and laity to not let the “forecasts” of the disruption deter us from fulfilling our mission. We often hear about the “Snow-pocalypse” forecast (hopefully no longer by the time you read this!). In Minnesota we would often have to cancel meetings the day before a single flake would fall (or not fall), according to the forecast, because some people would have to travel 5-7 hours to get to the meeting. Yet many times the “snow-pocalypse” didn’t amount to much of anything—a couple of inches at best. The anxiety was often greater than the reality.
We may have some rough sledding ahead but we must keep our focus on our mission to be the church in these challenging times. While it’s important for us as The United Methodist Church to figure out how to live together with our differences (if it’s human sexuality today, tomorrow it will be something else), I believe that God wants us to be the body of Christ in the world so as to address the injustice, human cruelty, poverty and racism all around us. And to give witness to the ancient observation of Christianity: “see how they love one another.”
There is an officially sanctioned and authorized body called the Commission on the Way Forward. They are meeting 2-3 days every 6 weeks or so to discern a path forward for the denomination. This is a slow and deliberate process because it comprises many voices throughout the church. It will be accountable to the institutional bodies that created it, including the Council of Bishops and ultimately the General Conference (possibly a specially called General Conference in 2019) to enact any changes that it proposes.
I encourage clergy and laity not to get too caught up in this Judicial Council decision, but to await the work of the Commission on the Way Forward. I urge all of us to consider how it is that we could live together in our differences since we no longer live in a world where everyone is or thinks or acts or even believes or expresses their beliefs the same way. The task of our time—and this is a big test of that task—is to find a way to live together. Unity and its strength comes through diversity like the body and its many members, and harmony comes by joining together in one chord.
This fall we will have a day of conversation based on a document entitled “Wonder, Love and Praise”, led by retired Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader. Mark your calendar for September 16 and plan to attend.
As part of that conversation, we will reflect on the questions that the Council of Bishops has crafted for the church as we prepare for the Commission’s report:
• In our diverse and global existence, what is the shared mission/purpose of the Church?
• Is there a proactive way for us to live together in our differences that doesn’t presume that we will resolve our differences? What would it be?
• What might be a form of unity that would empower us living together?
• What is our witness and what can be our witness to the world in relation to our differences?
Also, our conference will be part of the denomination’s prayer vigil, “Praying Our Way Forward“. Each week a different annual conference covers the hours in the days with prayer. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference has the week of December 3-9, 2017. Those elected to the 2016 General Conference delegation will be getting more information to us later in the year so we can sign up for an hour in that week.
But please be in constant prayer for the church…and in constant mission to our world. We are Easter people, called to bring hope, love, joy and peace to our world, nation, communities, families and churches in the midst of all the anxiety and conflict.
Let us give witness to our risen Savior by being the church of Jesus Christ!
~Bishop Sally Dyck