By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht-
Last week the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward for the Church held its fourth face-to-face meeting. With nine total meetings scheduled, we are still not even halfway to the end of our process. We are aware that this process is taking more time and thought than some would like. It is not easy work.
The Commission is not trying to determine what the church should believe regarding sexual practice and marriage. We are concentrating on how we can and cannot live together. So time has not been spent on theological debate or trying to persuade others to change their position. We’ve done that for four decades, and going over the rationales for each position is unlikely to change anyone’s mind or create any kind of resolution.
The focus of this meeting was to solidify the foundation for a proposal by 1) coming to agreement about what we have in common as United Methodists, 2) summarizing what we have been hearing and learning from various parts of the church, and 3) identifying guiding principles for a way forward.
We agreed on what forms our common core, the shared understanding of the Christian faith that helps describe our identity as United Methodists. We share a common desire to root our theology and actions in Scripture, even while we have sharp disagreements over how to interpret and apply the Bible to life. We share a Wesleyan theological heritage founded on:
- Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds
- Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith
- The General Rules (do no harm, do good, attend upon all the ordinances of God/means of grace)
- The Wesley Hymns
A key part of our identity that we are recovering is small group accountability and support. The class and band meetings of 18th century England have given way to modern spiritual formation groups, support groups, and accountability groups. We strongly believe in a life of Christian discipleship characterized by works of piety, mercy, and justice. Common liturgy, such as services of Baptism and Eucharist, link us together. And our church features bishops, an itinerant clergy to extend the mission of the church, and conferencing as our way of decision-making.
Of course, it is important to note that evangelicals, centrists, and progressives do not understand our core the same way. Differences of interpretation and application might mean that the core does not really unite us, but only serves as a starting point for development in separate directions.
What We Are Learning
We have received and processed significant feedback from North American caucus groups, general church agencies, seminary students, young adults, large church pastors, and United Methodist theologians and historians, among others. While this feedback has been helpful in understanding the issues and concerns that people bring to this conflict, the solutions people have proposed are in many ways contradictory and one-sided. As we narrow in on a proposal, we will need to try to accommodate the interests and concerns of all sections of the church, while knowing that we cannot fulfill anyone’s expectations completely. The ultimate proposal will be a compromise and blending of ideas and suggestions.
One major emphasis of this meeting was a deeper understanding of the distinct circumstances in the central conferences outside the United States. It is important to understand where these United Methodist brothers and sisters stand on the issues that divide us. But it is also important to understand their local situations. There are many countries in Africa and Eastern Europe that not only do not allow same-sex marriage, but actually have laws against homosexuality. Many of the European congregations and annual conferences are small and financially precarious.
Another segment during this meeting revolved around a greater understanding of our church pension situation. Some annual conferences have considerable unfunded liability for pensions earned by clergy prior to 1982. And as clergy and spouses live longer lives, that liability increases. Any proposal the Commission makes will have to address how that liability is cared for.
Principles for a Way Forward
We are looking for a way forward that provides enough separation between the disagreeing parts of the church, so that no one is forced to support a type of ministry that he or she cannot in good conscience believe in. Given the events that have transpired since General Conference 2016, the amount of needed separation is probably greater now than it was then. I am hoping for a solution where those who can live together are able to do so, while those who cannot live together are not forced to do so.
I am gratified that the Commission has begun sketching the outlines of a proposed way forward. The next several months will be crucial in helping us arrive at a way to resolve the impasse in our denomination. The outlines will rapidly become clearer, and the details will start to fill in.
A Heart of Peace
Some have complained that the Commission’s meetings are not open
to the press or public. While I am a proponent of open meetings in most circumstances, I firmly believe we on the Commission could not have accomplished what we have so far if the meetings had been open. (Full disclosure: my colleagues who work most closely with Good News magazine disagree with me and believe the meetings should be open.) The need to worry about how one comes across in a polarized church and society would stifle creativity and the ability to “try on” ideas. Because of the trust and goodwill we have toward one another within our group of 32 members, we are able to say things that we might not have said in a public venue, and we can work through a messy process toward a clear solution. I along with many Commission members look forward to sharing publicly as much information as we can as soon as we can in this process.
We are grateful for, encouraged by, and dependent upon the prayers of United Methodists around the globe. As we on the Commission do our work, we are constantly admonished to engage with one another with “a heart of peace.” I am hopeful that this same attitude of humility, peace, and love will characterize not only the deliberations of the Commission, but all the blogs and discussions and meetings that will help the church process our recommendations. Finding a positive and God-honoring way forward for our church depends on it.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
I encourage you to read the more detailed report issued by the Commission this week that can be found here.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergy person and the vice- president of Good News. He serves as a member of the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward.
As for as I am concerned, closing the meetings of the Way Forward Commission is the most credible and hopeful thing church leadership has done in a very long time. This clamoring for open meetings is a sign of the distrust that is rampant within the American branch of the UMC.
The existence of the Commission, as well as the conditions that prompted its need, are proofs that Scripture and Wesley have been right all along: Humanity is naturally fallen and sinful, not purely good by nature. There are indeed eternal standards of right and wrong. Just think how many issues of morality–personal and corporate–could be dealt with redemptively if the fallen condition of humanity was first accepted as a given fact.
As has been pointed out hundreds of times before, the problem is with Biblical interpretation, as this commission points out. Therefore, that’s what this commission needs to be focused on. It would do well to gather together the two BIBLICAL INTERPRETATIONS on the practice of homosexuality and what constitutes Christian marriage, put it forward in a printed, simple format for review by the entire church membership, and then present it to the 2019 General Conference for a vote. This would require no debate within the commission since both positions would be fully explored, allowed, and included with both sides given ample opportunity to present their cases–their Biblical interpretations on this conflict.
Let the General Conference decide on which Biblical interpretation to follow. Once that is settled, then do whatever is necessary structurally to move the church forward.
The Bible has only one “Biblical interpretation” on the practice of same sex sexual relations. It is the same as it is for all Christians. We believe in one God and His word is never changing or subject to opinions outside of the Word of God. .
Biblical standards or following culture- Just like in Judges”every one does what is right in their OWN eyes.”italics added…The easier solution was to follow the Book of Discipline unless it is changed…Have one person stay as a member of the UMC but not in a position of authority…No different than adultery, pornography, abuse,etc. One Conference is the tail wagging the dog- We are NOT the United Methodist Church and are planning for the schism ahead.
Just remember, every major denomination that has gone with culture is declining in significance and membership-
The Discipline of the United Methodist Church states what we believe about marriage and about homosexual practice. All members of the denomination including the clergy and bishops agreed that they believed what was in the Discipline when they joined the church and again at their ordination and election. Those who no longer believe what is in the Discipline are not really United Methodists and need to find a denomination with which they agree or start a new denomination. We cannot just change our religious convictions by a vote of either the congregation or the conference.
Am I the only one scratching thy head after reading the status report? Of course it’s early and preliminary, but did anyone else notice the heavy emphasis on CONTEXTUALIZATION? Is my understanding that theological contextualization can rather easily be transitioned into culturalization of Scripture? Is is correct that the the report referenced the Bible just once and the preaching of the Gospel for the salvation of the sinner not once?
It looks like the Way Forward will be creating different planets orbiting around the common core. Are we to believe that the gravity of the common core will be strong enough to hold everyone in a stable orbit? This will create Methodist communities that will refuse to recognize one another and the distance between them will only increase with time. Unforeseen consequences will come about and no one will be able to control what follows. Mark the beginning of the dissolution of The UMC with this so called way forward.
Mr. Lambrecht: The Commission was charged with the responsibility of reviewing every element of our the Discipline and Social Principles that touch on human sexuality. Why has the Commission abandoned the only work that GC directed it to undertake?
I absolutely agree with what Kevin’s assessment of where this is headed. I viewed the report from the commission and I am dismayed. For starters the vine analogy is a misappropriation of scripture. Second, I don’t think anybody has totally thought through the implications “loosening the connection” will have at the local level where there is no clear cut leaning one way or the other–the overall concept has the ability to send such annual conferences into complete chaos and decimate local churches that are ill prepared to deal with such a change because they are clueless what is happening at the denominational level. It is true that local churches are continuing to function despite the wrangling at the denominational level.
My plan from the pew: Acknowledge the reality that we are where we are because almost 100 years ago Bishops decided that theology was too divisive and decided “doing” should trump ‘believing”. Acknowledge the reality that what General Conference does has little or no effect on the local church and pare its function down to a bare minimum. In short, let everybody keep doing what they are doing and let things sort themselves out at the local level by seeing who survives and who does not. Any other fix that involves trying to keep this mess together is only going to make things worse because it will push decisions down to the local level which is ill prepared to deal with such decsions.
It seems you either believe one way or the other. It almost appears a split is inevitable. The hardest part of everything I read seems to be dealing with how to divvy up the pension plans and Monies of UMC staff whena split will occur. That seems to be what they’re more concentrated on than what we should believe based on interpretation of the scripture as UMC.
On the issue of closed meetings, I believe this course is wise and prudent. Playing this type of work in public for every social media blogger and critic hinders your work. We trust the people on the Commission to do Christ’s work as his servants. The general public does not need to know all the details and contexts of discussion at the Commission.
Keep up the good work. Be strong and courageous!
I am sick of soul and heart. I (we) survive in a downtown California UMC (dating back to 1858) in a city just eeking out of bankruptcy and with streets filled with homeless and an aged white congregation in a neighborhood of economic multi-ethnic chaos. This battle of human sexuality seems like the booming guns of a war our nation’s leaders seem hell-bent to start. None of this discourse enters into our daily challenges of life and church survival here. Nine UMCs in our greater city area are trying to find out how to survive and serve working together and the issues of human sexuality are not part of the picture we face. If this messy 4-decades long destructive debate turns to denominational separation, our local churches will no longer exist in a community we wish to serve and so needs that witness.
You’re statement about all members of the UMC giving assent to the BOD is incorrect. Rank and file members pledge loyalty to the UMC not the BOD. The ordained alone enter into covenant with the teachings of the Discipline.
P Perry is exactly right. The Holy Scripture is clear regarding marriage, homosexuality, and changing the scriptures to agree with popular opinion. The Discipline is also clear and those who accepted what it says when they became ordained and/or members of the UMC should br removed from the UMC.
I am a part-time local pastor in a small rural church, and my views were not asked for while large churches were consulted. We are connectional yet we are talking about creating different disciplines, separation from other countries, and more dialogue over what the Bible says is an abomination.
Our agencies are setting the policies with secular agendas concerned with political correctness more than church doctrinal standards, pastors brazenly break their vows and all the bishops do is slap their wrists.
Everything I have read on ‘the way forward’ seems to me to be aiming for the ‘progressives’ to have their cake and eat it, too. The Bible is very clear on homosexuality, Jesus made it clear that marriage is between a man and a woman, the Discipline states that homosexuality is not compatible with (recognized) Christian teaching, the ordination vows are clear and if you won’t obey them then you need to resign, change denominations, or start your own church. Don’t continue to ruin the UMC.
Christianity is not about how you feel or what you think is right or wrong. It is about what God says in His Word. We are to recognize our sins, repent, believe that Christ died for our sins and offers us forgiveness so that those sins no longer have dominion over us as we follow Christ into a new life of abundance and eternity. We are not to be conformed to the world.
I admit to rarely agreeing with Tom Lambrecht. I must say, however, that I find this article refreshingly candid and unbiased. I agree that the commission should be looking at whether we can remain one church, given the deep fissures currently present within the body. People of deep and genuine faith have debated topics related to human sexuality with great passion for 40+ years. I believe that the question before us now is whether those with deep convictions and beliefs that fall at opposing ends of the spectrum can, in could conscience, remain within one denomination. I fear we cannot, but would love to be proven wrong. And I am grateful that there is a group of people honestly asking these hard questions. I am deeply saddened (and indeed angered) by the fact the commission does not include a larger number of LGBTQ persons given the life and death implications of the words and actions of the Church that will result from the work of the Commission. I believe it is perfectly understandable and would support protests in this regard. I also understand the rationale for keeping these initial meetings closed to those outside the commission (a position that, like Mr. Lambrecht, is at odds with that of many friends and colleagues). I pray that the lives of all those on the Commission will be transformed by the process they are going through and that they will be able, with God’s help, to find a way where before we saw no way. That they will perceive the new thing God is doing, and find a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.
My spirit is very upset. I have always believed the bible to be the word of GOD. When I joined the Methodist Church, I though they were Bible believing Christians.
Romans chapter I is very clear. There Book of Discipline is clear.Why are they going away from the Bible?
I love my church but if the Lord tells me to leave then I must.
I love the intention to keep a heart of peace. We are already in schism. A whole Jurisdiction felt compelled, for conscience sake, to reject the clear will of General Conference. Now is a time to loving allow the freedom, for conscience sake, to peacefully separate our clearly divergent communities.
I agree 100% – this is my experience also. Thank you writing this truly and eloquently – what will happen to us?
Of all the people listed in attendance, and maybe I missed this, but where is International Church representation? As we know, the rest of the UMC worldwide has a vested interest in “The Way Forward” as well. Of course, we know most of their stands are more orthodox and is this why they were “left out”? Not trying to be antagonistic, just trying to understand how these who have a vested interest in the Book of Discipline and continued fellowship will be affected by these decisions as well.
William, you are not alone. I was wondering the same thing. I worry for the connectional church I love.
Here’s another totally different slant. In all the conversations I have had and all the debate I have heard, two things stand out. 1) The UMC wants, believes, strives (fill in your word here) to bring millennials into our flocks. We know the future of the denomination is dependent on this generation taking great leadership both in service and stewardship (there is a difference?). 2) It appears that these highly motivated and sought-after individuals are looking at us and saying “No, not for me … what is this fight you are having over human sexuality? We got over that; it doesn’t matter; we’re going on. Let us in to find some social conscience project you so say you have always been about. Let me get in an get my hands dirty. Get over this fight. It’s beneath you. The world is waiting for us to bring justice and keep us alive.” If we want the young to be the church, we might listen to what they are saying … like it or not.
It became very clear to me in reading the July 27, 2017 status report from the Commission on a Way Forward and viewing the embedded video on The Vine, that the Book of Discipline has little importance to the leadership of the United Methodist Church. Even though those ordained as pastors enter into a covenant to be accountable to the Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority, yet careful reading of this status report makes no mention of obedience to the Discipline; ironically, rebellion or disobedience to the Discipline is the heart of the matter! It is even stated in one of the bullet points that the Discipline would be “a thinner document.” Methodists of many years, like myself, became members of this denomination because of its core beliefs and emphasis on the Word. In order to survive as a church it appears we have abandoned these values in favor of the cultural norms of our day. The churches that will survive, in my opinion, will be those that focus solely on God’s Word rather than the dissenting, clamoring words of secularism. Come Holy Spirit!
Maybe I’m a bit simple-minded, but perhaps the answer can be found here: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14 (NRSV)
I believe we should start over with a new Church with no bishops just Superintendents who serve for a limited term then return to being a pastor. This would be more in line with Wesley! I cannot in good conscience remain in a denomination that is not sure of the Truth of God’s word!
Well said Perry. No room for mob rule, minority rule, or political shenanigans by whoever screams the loudest, no room for selective disobedience. Time for true believers to stick to the Word, and let the chips fall where they may. I am worn down by all this nonsense, and tired of watching good believers vote with their feet; tired of swimming upstream in a denomination in the middle of an identity crisis, ashamed to be United Methodist. God help us!
Thanks to the Commission for their hard work.
Thanks to those that are praying for this situation. There was district prayer service just for this situation. The service was in Athens, Georgia last March lead by Revs. Tom Atkins of Gateway UMC and Joe Gunby of Oconee St. UMC. One of the things I got out of this prayer meeting is that what is impossible for Methodist is not impossible for God. My part in this is to pray for both The Way Forward Commission and for the Holy Spirit to work a miracle in all of us, the situation and the decisions.
This could be a moment in which the UMC becomes more defined by a miracle of healing than by division.
This could be a moment in which the UMC becomes more empowered by prayer than by logic.
This could be a moment in which God does a great thing.
This is my prayer.
When, not if, this committee affirms support for homosexuality the UMC will be a dead man walking. I have stopped giving to my church because I’m not going to financially support a church that does nit believe in the inerrancy of scripture. I now tithe to Samaritans Purse
so your plan is to entice millenials is to say the Bible is wrong on homosexuality. Then how do you defend the Bible’s assertion that Jesus rose from the dead. Because you’ve just said it’s wrong on homosexuality. Maybe it’s wrong on Jesus ? Can you not see the problem you’ve created for yourself ? By denying the inerrancy of scripture on homosexuality you’ve lost the ability to defend anything else in the Bible. Your hypocrisy will not be liost on millemials. But their souls may very well be lost because you don’t/won’t defend the Bible’s crystal clear position on homosexuality.