By Jessica Brodie
South Carolina’s General Conference delegates are in prayer this month as plans develop for a special 2019 General Conference session to explore issues of homosexuality and church unity.
The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops voted at its fall meeting to announce they intend to hold the special session in February or March 2019 and asked the General Conference business manager to explore venues and a bid search. The official call for the session is expected to come shortly after the newly formed Commission on a Way Forward begins its work.
The Commission on a Way Forward was authorized at General Conference 2016 in light of the deep denominational divide over sexuality issues and some calls for a UMC split. It is tasked to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in the UMC Book of Discipline regarding sexuality. All 56 petitions on sexuality slated to be decided at General Conference were deferred to this commission. The UMC maintains its current language on sexuality—that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching—while the 32-member commission takes a deeper look at the issues.
If the special 2019 session is called, South Carolina’s 16 delegates to General Conference 2016 would join their counterparts across the global United Methodist Church to address the commission’s recommendations.
South Carolina Delegation Chair Dr. Tim McClendon said the delegation is not planning to meet until they receive the official call. But in the meantime, “We need to be praying for the commission and the Council of Bishops as they prepare,” McClendon said.
“Until then, the current Book of Discipline is church law and those sections will be enforced, and so we need to remember that and not panic or be too reactive but be receptive to what’s going to come out,” McClendon said.
Barbara Ware, South Carolina’s first-elected lay delegate, said the news of a possible 2019 session has been received with mixed emotions, as some think it is too close to General Conference 2020 and others feel it is not.
“I would urge folks to pray for the Council of Bishops, the commission that has been appointed, the delegates to General Conference 2016 and the UMC as a whole,” Ware said.
The UMC constitution authorizes the council to call for such a session, which would possess the authority and exercise all the powers of the General Conference; General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the full UMC.
However, business to be considered during such a session would be limited to the purpose defined within the call, which also would include the time and place and give delegates ample time to review session materials.
“A requirement that materials be in the hands of delegates at least 230 days before such a session makes it unlikely that the commission could complete its work in time to meet that deadline for a 2018 meeting, so 2019 seemed to us to be the best option,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the Council of Bishops. “The purpose of broadening the timeframe to either February or March is to afford more flexibility in finding a suitable and available location.”
Dialogue and prayer
As the denomination prepares for the coming session, South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston urged United Methodists to focus on a churchwide Praying Our Way Forward Initiative. South Carolina and other annual and central conferences will commit to a designated week sometime between Jan. 1, 2017, and into 2018 when they will come together as a conference and intentionally pray for the UMC and the work of the commission.
“We want the church and the Commission on a Way Forward to be led by God. This prayer emphasis puts us in a posture where as a church we are asking and listening for God’s leadership,” said Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, co-chair with Bishop Al Gwinn of the Praying Our Way Forward Initiative. “Our prayer focus is twofold: We are praying that God will help us to more effectively fulfill the mission of the church. And we are praying to be one in Christ.”
Wallace-Padgett urged people to pray daily for the church’s effectiveness in fulfilling its mission of making disciples and for the outcome of the work of the commission; participate in their conference’s week of prayer; and fast weekly as they are able for the UMC and its future. Gwinn said the council is working in partnership The Upper Room, which has developed a website called UMCprays.org and features tools and resources to help plan the week of prayer.
As part of the Praying Our Way Forward Initiative, bishops of the church were also asked to pledge 15 minutes a day in prayer for the selection and initial work of the Commission on A Way Forward.
The council also is requesting that clergy and laity within annual and central conferences initiate a conversational process that would parallel the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. Each bishop would be free to structure the process and timeline according to the specific needs and context of their area.
General Conference 2016 Delegation:
- Barbara Ware
- James Salley
- Dr. Joseph Heyward
- Herman Lightsey
- Jackie Jenkins
- Michael Cheatham
- Martha Thompson
- Dr. David Braddon
- Dr. Tim McClendon
- Rev. Ken Nelson
- Rev. Tim Rogers
- Dr. Robin Dease
- Rev. Tiffany Knowlin
- Rev. Narcie Jeter
- Rev. Mel Arant Jr.
- Rev. Susan Leonard-Ray