UMC bishops explore three ‘Way Forward’ models for denomination

Final report will come in May, then UMC will vote in 2019

By Jessica Brodie

United Methodist bishops—including South Carolina’s Bishop Jonathan Holston—are reviewing three possible models for the denomination’s future courtesy of a report from the Commission on a Way Forward.

Stemming from the denomination’s widely differing views on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning/queer issues and the difficulty of addressing 56 pieces of sexuality legislation at the 2016 General Conference, the Commission on a Way Forward was proposed by the Council of Bishops and approved by conference to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning sexuality. They are tasked with exploring options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.

After meeting monthly since then, the 32-member commission has crafted an interim report with three models for a way forward, which they presented to the UMC Council of Bishops when the COB gathered Nov. 9 at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.

  • One model affirms the current Discipline language and places a high value on accountability.
  • Another model removes restrictive language and places 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.
  • A third model is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one COB, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.

The commission and the COB said they are not restricted to these models and are open to learning, listening and improvement. They said it is likely additional models may emerge as the process continues.

Just as the commission did not express a preference for any of the models in its interim report to the COB in order for the bishops to fully do their work, the COB is also not now expressing a preference for any model, while engaging deeply with them and the implications for their church and leadership.

Each model represents values within the COB and across the church, and each includes a gracious way of exit for those who feel called to leave the UMC.

“We are convinced that with love, we will continue to discern God’s vision for our church and listen and see what God wants us to be and to do,” said Bishop David Yemba, one of the moderators of the commission.

The commission said it expects the bishops to offer feedback to help the commission in crafting a final report next year in readiness for the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference. That special session will ask clergy and lay delegates from across the globe to vote on the matter.

The COB and commission have a series of meetings scheduled for early 2018 designed to continue the preparations for the Special Session of General Conference 2019. This includes commission meetings in January and March and a COB meeting in February before a final report is discussed at the May meeting of the COB.

The commission will finalize its proposals early next year and present them at the bishops’ May meeting.

“Pray for the work of the Commission and for the bishops as they continue to discern God’s plan for the future of the UMC; a future that shows love for all of God’s people and a future with hope,” said COB President Bishop Bruce R. Ough.

Holston calls for prayer, conversation across South Carolina

Now, South Carolina Resident Bishop Holston is encouraging United Methodists to continue to pray for the commission and the COB to earnestly seek God’s will for the UMC.

“We face challenging and complex issues that divide many of our churches and our people on this issue,” Holston said.

Holston said South Carolina United Methodists will spend the week of Dec. 24-30 participating in the denomination-wide “Praying Our Way Forward” initiative. He said this will be a time for the conference to lead the denomination in praying for the members of the commission, for God’s wisdom and direction and for the mission of the UMC to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Also, as an initiative from our annual conference, Holston has asked leaders in each of South Carolina’s 12 districts to plan a time of conversation around the issue of human sexuality.

“I encourage you to participate in these discussions, as well,” Holston said. “As we worship and serve together, let us all renew our commitment to walk by faith and not by sight as we pray for the work of the Commission on a Way Forward.”

Ough urges respectful conversations

Likewise, UMC bishops as a whole are calling on members of the denomination to engage in respectful conversations amid growing conflict in many places in the world.

In a pastoral letter released at the end of the COB meeting at Lake Junaluska, Ough said the UMC is a church diverse in its theological understanding of Scripture and Christ’s call in our lives.

“Ephesians 4:1-2 admonishes us ‘to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,’” Ough wrote.

“All of us are witnesses to increased animosity and growing conflict over political, religious and justice issues in many places in our world in word and deed. We believe this serves to threaten our safety and security. In antagonistic discussions about our faithful witness in the world, we may encounter verbal abuse, disruptive behavior, harassing emails, letters and phone messages, and confrontations.

“As bishops of your United Methodist Church, we serve a church which is diverse in its theological understanding of Scripture and Christ’s call in our lives. Conflict and differing opinions, a natural part of the human and faith experience, come in a variety of forms. We are called to address our differences with authenticity and respectful conversations, which enrich our understanding of God and of one another.

“In recent months, we have experienced these negative behaviors escalating into more aggressive and violent expressions of hate, prejudice and anger directed against others. We are hearing of and observing angry words now escalating to actions that are resulting in fear, anxiety, loss of security and even physical harm. These actions are repugnant to us as your bishops.

“We renew our covenant to one another to lead as a council and in our respective residential areas in ways that reflect our commitment to do no harm, do good and stay in love with God. We renew this covenant within the Council of Bishops to engage in holy conversation and Christ-like behavior especially when we do not agree with one another.

“We call upon all United Methodists, even in the midst of disagreement and uncertainty about our future as a church, to do the same, and to love each other as Christ loved us (John 12:34).”

South Carolina divided, too

Like the rest of the world, South Carolinians have widely differing views about the future of the UMC and how it should vote concerning human sexuality. Some believe the language in the Discipline must stay the same or get even stronger in deeming LBGTQ issues as sin. Others believe the Discipline must be changed, noting Jesus commanded us to love all and never mentioned homosexuality.

Many others believe the UMC, as “united,” must do all it can to work together and remain together despite differences in viewpoints.

“I’m a ‘cradle Methodist,’ a member before we were called United Methodists. My great-grandfather and his brothers were all circuit-riding Methodist ministers. My roots in Methodism go deep,” said Lill Mood, member of Chapin UMC, Chapin. “Now, with all of the division and conflict in the world at large, I believe it is more important than ever that we stay united as a church, that we demonstrate to the world how Christians live in harmony as the body of Christ.”

Mood said she is convinced that, with God’s guidance and help, we can find common ground for our way forward.

The basic resources for these conversations were shared in a handbook with the bishops, and this handbook will be available on the Commission on a Way Forward’s website as a PDF.

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