Responding to Misconceptions about the Bishops’ Commission

Members of the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward at their March meeting in Atlanta, UMNS

By Thomas Lambrecht-

The Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward for the Church is now in its fifth month of work. We have had three face-to-face meetings and are preparing for a fourth in July.

Over these months, I have continued to hear criticisms of the Commission that stem from misunderstandings or myths about what the Commission was charged to do and/or what will finally result from the process. As a member of the Commission, I would like to speak to these misconceptions.

1.      The Commission is just another way to “kick the can down the road.” After 45 years of debate and dialogue, United Methodism continues to discern a consistent biblical teaching regarding marriage and sexuality. I share evangelical frustration that this seems to be a never-ending controversy. I also know progressives who are extremely frustrated the church has not moved toward officially allowing same-sex marriages and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and in fact has moved toward tighter limits on these questions. And centrists often wonder aloud, “Can’t we just all get along?”

With some justification, people say: No matter what proposals have been presented at General Conference — from left, right, or center — the issue never gets resolved. Bishops have often failed to enforce the requirements of the Discipline and are perceived as trying to delay any resolution to the conflict. Church-wide studies and committees have failed to end the debate (e.g., 1988 and 1992). The 2012 and 2016 General Conferences were unable to even vote on legislation pertaining to this conflict. The promised called General Conference, originally set for 2018, was pushed back to 2019. So what confidence do we have that the Commission will actually bring a plan to resolve the impasse? Our track record suggests the Commission’s formation was just another way to “kick the can down the road.”

The Commission is indeed moving toward a solution. Its rough outlines are being worked on right now, as well as plans for how the proposal will be presented and interpreted to the church. This is not a quick process, since the proposal will need to gain the assent of a diverse church. (If there were a simple and easy solution, it would have been passed and implemented long ago!) Therefore, the task of creating such a proposal needed to be given to a small, representative group from across the connection so it could devise a broadly acceptable solution.

The Commission has built relationships of trust, defined the parameters of the challenge as well as the focus of a solution, consulted with experts, examined lessons of church history, learned from other mainline denominations that have experienced this conflict, heard about the unique contexts of ministry in the various central conferences outside the U.S., and surveyed at least nine different proposals various groups have made for resolving the impasse. All of this needed to happen before we could, in good faith, begin crafting a proposal for a way forward.

I remain confident the Commission will coalesce around a proposal that is broadly acceptable to the church. The Council of Bishops will act upon that proposal before submitting it to the 2019 General Conference. That conference has been called and preparations are being made for it. “Kicking the can” stops in St. Louis in February, 2019!

2.      The Commission is just a disguised way to bring back the “local option” or “third way” proposal. The idea that the church could “agree to disagree” on issues of ordination and marriage for LGBTQ+ persons and provide some sort of “local option,” where each local church or annual conference could decide for themselves, has been defeated at every General Conference since 2008. Significant segments of the church, both progressive and conservative, are adamantly opposed to a “local option.” Some outside the Commission have been promoting this option, and a few on the Commission may favor it, but they are in the minority. It is not a viable way forward.

The challenge we face is not geographical, but theological. Leaders and congregations in nearly every part of the global church (even in Africa) have varying opinions about whether marriage or ordination of LGBTQ+ persons is appropriate for the Christian church. A “local option” would still find disagreement within annual conferences that do or do not ordain LGBTQ+ persons that would offend the dissenters’ consciences. A congregational or clergy option regarding same-sex marriages would potentially pit congregations against pastors when they disagreed on its appropriateness, and it would certainly lead the church in a much more congregational direction when it comes to our polity.

In a recent blog, Dr. David Watson summarizes a trenchant critique of the “local option” when he calls it “incoherent” theologically. “If we are going to move to a ‘local option’ on homosexuality, we are saying that the General Conference cannot actually make reliable ethical decisions,” writes Watson, academic dean of United Theological Seminary. “If this is the case, we should move to a local option on all major ethical issues … At the end of the day, we as United Methodists are either a church or we are not. And if we are a church, then we are also a moral community. If we are not a church, but a loose association of churches, that is another matter altogether.”

A guiding principle of the Commission is to find a way forward that does not offend the consciences of anyone, whether progressive or traditionalist. No one will be forced to live within a body with which they cannot conscientiously agree. Therefore, the Commission is unlikely to endorse a “local option” plan.

3.      The Commission is a power play by the bishops and other church leaders to maintain the institutional status quo of the church. I have been encouraged to hear the discussions in the Commission revolve not just around the question of how the church ministers with LGBTQ+ persons, but about how the church can once again become effective in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I believe the Commission will present a way forward that sets the church free to reimagine how it can be effectively structured for the 21st century. The focus is not on institutional preservation, but missional effectiveness. We have brought back some of the learnings from the Call to Action report of 2008 to help inform our work. Our proposal will not simply be a rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic, but a search for a new way to do mission and ministry effectively.

4.      The Commission’s proposal will end up forcing people to compromise their principles for the sake of securing the financial future of the church. We are cognizant of, and continue to learn about, the financial realities facing the church. These include financially supporting the work of the church in Africa, Asia, and parts of Europe, providing for unfunded liability for clergy pensions, and the future of various boards and agencies. I feel confident in saying that, where possible, the Commission will opt for continuity and consistency, ensuring needed financial support for vital programs and ministries. At the same time, there is a sense in which providing for the financial needs of the present and future are just details. Major companies worth hundreds of billions of dollars work through these issues in mergers, spin-offs, and restructures all the time. These challenges can be solved. Far more important is finding a workable model of connection that allows principled and enthusiastic mission to go forward. We are confident we can do that in a way that will meet the financial needs our church faces.

5.      The Commission is structured in such a way as to create winners and losers. The Commission is stacked with persons who favor a more progressive or revisionist stance regarding ministry with LGBTQ+ persons. The Commission was structured to bring together people who are broadly representative of The United Methodist Church at large. It is not proportionally representative. (If it were, 40 percent of the membership of the Commission would be from Africa instead of the current 23 percent.) As long as there is representation from the major segments of the church (and there is), the Commission is well positioned to do its work.

Any proposal coming from the Commission has to have the support of all the major segments of the church in order to be adopted, since I presume it will require a change in the constitution. It needs to be supported by bishops, clergy, and laity. It needs to be supported by progressives, centrists, and traditionalists. And it needs to be supported by the U.S. church and the central conferences. It has to be a (relatively) consensus proposal, or it will not obtain the 2/3 majority vote needed at the 2019 General Conference and the subsequent 2/3 ratification by the members of annual conferences. 

The Commission members do not think in terms of “winners” and “losers.” The Commission is looking at how the church might be structured in the future to put an end to our infighting. In the past the debate has been which view – traditional or revisionist – was correct and should prevail. Fortunately, we’re not headed down that dead end road once again. We are looking toward a solution that puts an end to the fighting and creates a better future. We are working hard to craft a proposal that will enable all United Methodists to identify with a group in which they can feel at home, pursuing the mission of the church in a way consistent with their consciences and theological framework. Most of the other mainline denominations have degenerated into unholy fights over power and property, as they broke into pieces. Our goal is to find a different way, a Christ-honoring way, to respectfully and generously resolve the intractable divisions that beset our church. Thank you for your prayers as we seek to be faithful to this vision.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergy person and vice president of Good News. 

Comments

  1. the enemy hates clarity says:

    This is encouraging. I pray it resolves along these lines.

    In Christ,

    The enemy hates clarity

  2. Linda A. Richard says:

    Incredibly balanced and hopeful! Thank you!

  3. William says:

    “After 45 years of debate and dialogue, United Methodism continues to discern a consistent biblical teaching regarding marriage and sexuality” Am sure this must be because the biblical teachings on said matters have been consistent for some 2,000 years, and no man or woman has found a viable way past that stubborn fact.

    In February, 2019 — after all is said and done, the UMC must FIRST decide by delegate vote if it is still a Biblical church submitting to Scriptural authority, a Christ centered church, a Christ following church. If it cannot reach a consensus on that, then a peaceful plan of separation must be initiated in order to save what remains of the UMC.

  4. James Lung says:

    I thought the Commission’s charge included a re-write of the various Discipline and Social Principles teaching(s) on sex. Just like the UMC, the Commission appears to be long on process and very short on issues of truth.

  5. I’m sorry, but I’m still led to be believed that the Commission is just laying down the avenues for the UMC to eventually accept homosexual clergy and to legally marry homosexual couples. If this happens, which it probably will, the two UM churches I pastor will withdraw from the UMC, leaving my future as a pastor to be Very unknown.

    • I am concerned about your position and anyone who suffers career loss or misfortune over the United Methodist Church crisis. The people causing the crisis must be held financially responsible and have to reimburse people whose lives they jeopardize. My prayers are with you.

  6. William says:

    There is no misconception here. These people ARE NOT going to live in covenant and follow the BOD no matter what the commission comes up with. They are declaring their independence from the UMC. A SEPARATION PLAN making that fact official is the only way forward when the General Conference meets in 2019.

    http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/boards-reaffirm-stand-for-lgbtq-clergy-candidates

    • I agree.

    • Orlan F Lehmann says:

      I agree with Janet. We were told there would be a plan brought to the Coucil of Bishops in 2018. You guys have 6 months to hammer out a plan of separation. There needs to be two churches: One for the progressives to minister to their world and I suggest we call that church The Progressive Methodist Church, and another one called The Wesleyan Covenant Church. There were proposals drafted By Good News at the 2016 Genl. Conference to allow congregations whose conscience allowed to separate from the UMC and take their church property from their annual conference. These sort of plans need to be instituted and allow those churches whose conscience to do that by 2.3 vote of the church to leave the UMC. Forget any unity of the UMC. There is non now and we need not pretend there is. Two new church names need to be presented to the Council of Bishops by December 2017 and a new call for a general conference in early 2018.
      We are tired of spending time an money on this dialouge. If we cannot have a decision by at least Mar 2018 I and many like minded folks in my church are leaving the UMC. There are in my area a Wesleyan Church, A Free Methodist Church and a Nazarene Church. We will move to one of these!

      There has been a theological pluralism at work since 1972 and this has been the cause of our current problem. Sin is the problem and those who are in a same sex relationship need to repent of it and leave it. God can transform our sinful evil desires and we need to understand that repentance it what is needed. Enough said.

  7. “We are working hard to craft a proposal that will enable all United Methodists to identify with a group in which they can feel at home, pursuing the mission of the church in a way consistent with their consciences and theological framework.”

    Can’t wait to see what these group choices will be. Are we all going to get buttons to wear so we can identify with our group? We can all get together once in a while and have competitions like bowling or horseshoes since doing theology across the groups would be a complete waste of time.

  8. Licensed Local pastor says:

    It seems that the only thing the commission will be able to accomplish is to set up the guidelines for an amicable separation of the UMC into two different denominations.

  9. The sticking point for me is the Bishops, especially when one who is a moderator of the Commission is identified as offering these types of statements as assurances:

    “Bishop Carter offered six reasons he thought the denomination should avoid splitting (as has been consistently rumored of late):

    “God desires unity among God’s people. (See John 17:11 and Galatians 3:28.)

    “We believe in the doctrine of progressive grace. Every person is a child of God, endowed with sacred worth, justified by faith in Christ and on a journey of sanctification. There is disagreement about what sanctification looks like. Can an LGBTQ person be on a journey to holiness? Yes.

    “We already have LGBTQ persons in our churches—“they” are “us.” We need to live in love and harmony with our brothers and sisters in faith.

    “The United Methodist Church has a tremendous global mission. United, we do too much good together to diminish our mission by fragmentation.

    “The next generation of the church wants unity. For most younger people (under 40), sexuality is not a deal-breaker. Even if they don’t agree with homosexuality, they live with its acceptance daily.

    “The institutional piece is not insignificant. The United Methodist Church has billions of dollars in assets, from the pension fund to colleges and hospitals, not to mention all the local church property which is held in trust for the denomination. Do we really want to spend untold resources dividing, untangling and litigating for years at the expense of our real mission?”
    http://um-insight.net/perspectives/let-s-stay-together/

    • William says:

      Good Bishop Carter — can a person practicing sexual immorality as an ongoing lifestyle be on a journey to holiness? Don’t believe Wesley preached that one can experience the justifying grace of salvation without a confession of sins, a conversion experience, a being born again in Christ, and a turning from a sinful orientation in order to follow Christ. Furthermore, it was Jesus who strongly reminded the Pharisees (and all others to this day) of what constitutes marriage — that is, God’s created order for marriage that no man was to tamper with through easy divorce. No wonder our church is in crisis with these liberal Bishops attempting to usurp the Word of God and rewrite Wesleyan theology in order to fit some current trend, or fit what etching ears want to hear, or perhaps for the real bottom line, to protect financial assets.

  10. Last week I came across an article written in 1998 in which William Abraham did an excellent job of assessing the theological factions that currently exist within the United Methodist Church. His concluding paragraph spoke a hard truth:

    “However this important conversation continues, and it surely will continue, it must be informed by the very real possibility that the Liberal Protestant project exemplified by United Methodism was flawed from the start. Perhaps the very idea of theological pluralism was bound to self-destruct in time. These are the ominous questions now engaged. The truth and the church we love deserve from parties on all sides of these questions clear thinking, honest speaking, mutual respect—and much prayer and fasting.”
    https://www.firstthings.com/article/1998/06/002-united-methodists-at-the-end-of-the-mainline

  11. Dave says: We are separate and need a plan to make it official. the vote should start at church level and organizations define from there. There can be no financial connection either. The pension funds need to be set aside based on the numbers. The church needs to be totally separate. Including a complete name change if necessary. Lets move forward to do God’s work.
    .

  12. Iohannes says:

    I left the UMC for the very reason that this issue keeps getting kicked down the road while the revisionist view creeps slowly into the church. I hope this article is correct and that a solution is reached once and for all. That solution is what will determine if I, and thousands like myself, will return or shake the dust off our sandals for good. I hope for the former and prepare for the latter.

  13. It is a pity that Thomas Lambrecht makes no mention of honoring the Scripture and seeking its guidance in sorting out this irreconcilable cluster. The disobedient and rebellious factions in the Methodist Church are driving a stake through its very heart and our Bishops are too weak and lack the courage to deal with such a difficult problem. This weakness is exactly what the disobedient and rebellious factions are counting on to facilitate their sinful agenda, and they are happy to impose severe damage on the Church to achieve their goals.

  14. Richard says:

    The Church needs to uphold its Book of Discipline as it now reads and hold its Bishops accountable. I ask all people that believe likewise not to leave, but to stand.

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