What’s the way forward? UMC bishops consider two models for church unity

By Jessica Brodie

A plan to keep The United Methodist Church united despite difficult differences over human sexuality will go before the denomination’s bishops this month.

The UMC Council of Bishops will receive a finalized report from their 32-member Commission on a Way Forward at the next meeting, set for April 29-May 4 in Chicago. Initially presented at the bishops’ Feb. 25-28 meeting in Dallas, the report offered two models for a possible way forward for the UMC: the one church model and the multi-branch one-church model.

The bishops offered feedback but didn’t vote on the two models, asking the commission to tweak them further and submit a final report to the bishops at the COB’s spring meeting.

Once the bishops approve the report, it will go to the secretary of the General Conference or designated petitions secretary, as well as to translators and publishers in preparation for official release to the full church, approximately July 8, said Dr. Maidstone Mulenga, director of communications for the COB.

“The two sketches provide avenues for unity, contextualization and mission,” said Bishop Ken Carter, one of the moderators of the commission, which was established after General Conference 2016 and tasked to lead the UMC forward in unity. Appointed by the COB and authorized by General Conference, the commission comprises eight bishops, 13 other clergy members and 11 laity of varying gender, race and sexual preference.

The way forward report will be presented at a called Special Session of the General Conference set for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri. The 2019 special session will be limited to receiving and acting on the way forward report. The regular General Conference 2020, for the full business of the denomination, remains as May 5-15, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Two almost-final models

The commission had just finished revising their final report as of press time, and the report the bishops receive April 29-May 4 is expected to look much like the one they received at their February meeting, with some modification. The two models presented at the February meeting are as follows:

  • One Church Model: According to the commission, the One Church Model gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible. This model provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context in relation to human sexuality without changing the connectional nature of the UMC.
  • Multi-Branch One Church Model: According to the commission, the multi-branch 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 five United States jurisdictions would be replaced by three connectional conferences, each covering the whole country, based on theology and perspective on sexuality (progressive, contextual and traditional branches). Annual conferences would decide which connectional conference to affiliate with; only local churches who choose a branch other than the one chosen by their annual conference would vote to join another conference.

Different from last report

These two models are a bit different from the interim sketches presented by the commission in November. Those offered three options:

  • One model affirmed the current Discipline language and placed a high value on accountability.
  • Another model removed restrictive language and placed a high value on contextualization.
  • A third model was grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one COB, while also creating different branches.

However, after feedback from the bishops, these interim sketches were revised, and now there are two: the One Church and the Multi-Branch One Church. These can be further modified when the bishops meet in Los Angeles April 29.

The Rev. Cathy Jamieson, Columbia District superintendent and secretary to the Cabinet, said the Cabinet has been working to educate people on the way forward. Jamieson said she did a pastor training in partnership with Mark Tidsworth on the way forward status and how to lead as a pastor in this particular time. This was offered in January and was based on the reports available at that time. Jamieson said the Cabinet will continue trainings and education. She will be doing another training in May for lay delegates and church councils to include way forward and conflict mediation. Clergy are also doing trainings and dialogue during their district meetings.

Reaction varies

Across the nation, and across South Carolina, people have had mixed reactions to the plans.

The Rev. George Palmer Hudson, pastor of the Allendale Circuit, Allendale, said he supports the one church model.

“Understanding there are diverse views with regard to biblical interpretation and implications regarding God’s gift of human sexuality, we must remain deeply committed to sharing our ministry together to fulfill our stated mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” Hudson said. “Under this model, we can turn away from paths leading to schism thus keeping the essential character of the Wesleyan tradition and the global connectional ministry. It appears that it is faithful to Scripture. The Bible is one of God relentlessly at work to reconcile broken relationships, to heal the brokenness of our world and to create a community unified in love.”

Others are disappointed Option One from the interim sketches in November—affirming the current Discipline language—is no longer on the table.

“What about Option One—retaining our current Disciplinary positions on sexual morality? Since these positions are based solidly on Scripture, and are also compassionate, I feel sure many South Carolinians would want to retain them rather than to change them,” said the Rev. Jeff Kersey, senior pastor of Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington. “The work of the Commission On A Way Forward reveals a much deeper divide in our church over scriptural authority and scriptural interpretation. The reality is if we can’t agree on scriptural interpretation we will never agree on sexual morality or the next cultural challenge facing the church.”

(Many other viewpoints were offered but were two numerous to include in this article; read some of them here.)

COB President Bishop Bruce Ough, in his presidential address at the opening of the February COB meeting, urged fellow bishops to “be open to Christ changing our minds.”

For more on the Commission on a Way Forward:

Point-counterpoint commentaries welcome

The Advocate would like to run point-counterpoint commentaries on sexuality and/or the way forward models once a month at least until the special session, if not longer. The commentaries may range from 500-1,000 words, and you must include your name, church name and city, as well as a headshot photo. You must be a South Carolina United Methodist or have ties to a South Carolina UMC, and your piece must not contain profanity or personal attacks. All views are encouraged and welcome in the spirit of open dialogue. Submit to [email protected]. The deadline is the 10th of each month for the following month’s edition, with the exception of the July/post-Annual Conference paper, which has an early deadline of June 1 because of Annual Conference.

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