Our United Methodist Council of Bishops is in the process of forming a “Way Forward” commission to explore the future for us in light of our ongoing internal tensions, for which human sexuality is the most prominent flashpoint.
A key line from the commission’s mandate narrowly approved by the last General Conference: “We recommend that the General Conference defer all votes on human sexuality and refer this entire subject to a special Commission, named by the Council of Bishops, to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.”
Across every internal UMC division, there is deep pain and a desperate desire for us to “do something better” as it relates to human sexuality, but with completely different visions of what that means.
So this commission has an already daunting task, and is in the unenviable position of starting with a deficit of trust before it is even named.
As one renewal leader, duly elected delegate to the 2016 General Conference, supporter of the basic values on human sexuality that have been repeatedly affirmed at the last several General Conferences, and a millennial who wants a hopeful, more missionally effective future for our church, here a few of my humble thoughts on how the bishops now determining the make-up of this commission can help win as wide trust as possible, avoid doing needless harm, and promote good stewardship of the sacrificial tithes and offerings paying for this commission:
1. Endeavor to Have a Truly Balanced Commission, that is Authentically Representative of our Denomination’s Elected General Conference Delegates and Grassroots Membership.
There have been so many examples of hurt, frustration, and mistrust related to various other groups seeming to be “stacked” in ways that privilege certain perspectives, particularly theologically liberal North American perspectives.
I love my own North Central Jurisdiction, and cherish my time spent earlier as part of a New England Conference congregation. But the fact is that the three central conferences in Africa now constitute over 40 percent of our denomination’s membership, while the U.S. Southeastern Jurisdiction alone has another 21.8 percent. Leaders from these regions have complained about their voices being under-represented in denominational leadership. One can hardly say that they would not have a point if the membership of this commission includes significantly smaller portions from these regions.
More importantly, I hope the commission has a truly representative, United Methodist theological balance. I don’t think that anyone expects it to be an ideological monolith. But some balances are better than others.
A commission with roughly one-third of its members favoring our denomination’s official values on sexual morality, about another third who favor liberalizing our standards in this area while supporting traditionalist stances on other matters (like Christology), and one-third being across-the-board progressives may perhaps be called “balanced” if looked at from one angle.
But such a commission would not at all be representative of those elected to make final decisions for such matters at the 2016 General Conference. The first-week committee voting gave some pretty clear indications of where the center of gravity was for delegates’ values on sexual morality. Of the 12 main legislative committees, voting in Committees #2, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, and 12 showed generally strong majorities supporting traditionalist values on sexual morality. (As a delegate I ended up in Committee #3: Conferences, one of the committees without major legislation taking a direct and explicit stance on sexual morality.)
Previously, the last several General Conferences have consistently voted to uphold (or in 2008, strengthen) our Social Principles teaching that we seek to be in loving ministry with all people while teaching that sexual relations are only for monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and which have by significantly larger super-majorities re-affirmed our binding policies banning same-sex union services and the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” The clearest apples-to-apples comparison can be seen by looking at how the 2008 and 2012 General Conferences voted on whether to affirm our present Social Principles statement on human sexuality or replace it with a more liberal statement (identically worded in 2008 and 2012), with the two votes showing a clear trend in a more traditionalist direction.
A commission whose majority membership does not reflect such clear and repeated demonstration of where the majority of the church is (and the majority of the very delegates needed to pass any proposal they develop) would by definition be stacked in favor of Western liberal perspectives.
We have seen repeatedly how other major bodies and task forces have been informed by an unrepresentative sampling of voices, or even have exclusively focused on more theologically liberal voices while disregarding the concerns of more traditionalist believers, only to see their work distrusted, their collective legitimacy questioned, and their proposals overwhelmingly rejected by the church as a whole, no matter how much such one-sided plans have been marketed as “compromises” or “third ways.”
I really hope that this commission will not similarly spend a lot of time and offering-plate money to develop a plan unlikely to win the broad support needed for success at a future General Conference.
2. Be aggressively intentional about fully including the non-American commission members.
Too often, at general conferences and general agency meetings, we have seen duly chosen non-American leaders either unable to be present due to visa issues or unable to fully participate due to translation issues.
I do not say this to cast blame, but rather to make the point that for a commission so small but so important, it is essential that we do better. Beginning now with the finer details of the selection process, and at every subsequent step, our bishops can do everything in their power to minimize the likelihood of such issues limiting the participation of the non-American members who will be appointed.
3. At every step of the way, avoid false moral equivalences.
The foundational theological perspective of one United Methodist affirming what the Methodist Articles of Religion and the EUB Confession of Faith say about the authority of Scripture and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ should not be treated as just that one person’s opinion that is no more or less valued than that of someone else’s denial of such doctrines.
What sets United Methodism apart from Unitarian Universalism is that while the latter officially has no limits to its diversity of belief, our church has core Doctrinal Standards, constitutionally protected from change.
It is difficult to see how the commission could earn widespread trust if it privileges any perspective dramatically at odds with our church’s own official core values.
This also extends to how the contrasting tactics of different constituencies and voices within our church are treated. The choice of some clergy to break their ordination vows should never be treated as morally equivalent to the choice of others to keep them. Furthermore, I invite people to read a thought-experiment article I wrote a few months back, with a tongue-in-cheek tone, contrasting the vast differences in tactics of various caucuses.
Furthermore, I am not aware of anyone in the evangelical renewal movement using the sort of language about folk we disagree with as what we see from New York “Reconciling” movement leader Dr. Dorothee Benz.
4. Not just be an extended, costly filibuster of accountability legislation.
I give the Rev. Adam Hamilton credit for specifying in his motion exactly which petitions would have been referred to this commission. But there was no such specificity in the motion that ultimately passed, which the Agenda Committee chose to interpret as a mandate to prevent us General Conference delegates from being allowed a final vote on a much wider list of petitions, including important petitions related to accountability processes that made no mention anywhere of sexuality.
The vote on this “pause button” motion was not a clear “conservative vs. liberal” divide. Some delegates who voted for it motion wanted (and still want) to eventually pass some of the accountability-strengthening petitions that were thus delayed, and trusted the process to have integrity rather than be dominated by a liberal agenda.
Many of us are internally struggling with really wanting to give our bishops the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity to lead in this difficult task, while not being completely sure if everyone will act in what seems to be good faith.
It would seem like a cruel joke for certain accountability-system provisions of the Discipline, particularly those related to “just resolutions,” to be indefinitely wielded like a harmful club, in the eyes of many theological traditionalists, with no opportunity ever being given to resolve such concerns. Traditionalists have been told to be patient, and have honored the rules and worked through the proper channels to submit accountability-strengthening petitions to the last two General Conferences, but extraordinary actions by bishops and bishops’ appointees have resulted in no General Conference since 2008 being allowed to vote on these petitions.
Regardless of what may come of bigger-picture ideas for comprehensive solutions, our bishops and others involved in the commission can show a clear commitment to working in good faith with delegates and the rest of the church by committing to allowing the next General Conference, whether regularly scheduled or specially called, the opportunity to have a final vote on accountability petitions likely to enjoy the support of the majority of the church’s duly elected delegates.
5. Have some perspective about the demands from Love Prevails.
Amy DeLong’s Love Prevails group has publicly issued a “demand” (their word) that this commission include many “LGBTQ people” as members, arguing, “‘Human sexuality’ is code language for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer.” Since then, I have seen others issue similar calls for LGBTQ inclusion on the commission, albeit not worded quite so demandingly.
First of all, one need not accept liberal narratives about the standards of the United Methodist Church (and of most every Christian church for 2,000 years) being inherently “harmful” to anyone for us to recognize and have compassion for pain felt by our friends and neighbors who self-identify as part of the LGBTQ community.
Whoever ends up getting appointed to this commission, church leaders at every level should seek opportunities to be in conversation and relationship with people who experience same-sex attractions.
It seems worth noting that Love Prevails activists were granted plenty of opportunities to speak and be heard at meetings of the Connectional Table over the last quadrennium (opportunities granted to no other unofficial observers), while openly lesbian delegates Jen Ihlo and Dorothee Benz were at the microphone a many times during plenary sessions at the last General Conference.
Secondly, our denominational dialogues specifically on homosexuality have suffered from a skewing of the voices heard.
One should always be careful in guessing at the motives of others. But it seems safe to assume that when Love Prevails demands the inclusion of “LGBT people” as commission members, particularly when Love Prevails declares that it cannot be appeased by the inclusion of some “Queer people who are moderate and acceptable to [our bishops’] vision of polite conversation,” the sort of people it has in mind are not Christians who find themselves to be same-sex-attracted but choose to remain celibate for life, out of their deep personal support for the moral boundaries affirmed in our Discipline.
But such voices are important.
I also know of one of the larger U.S. delegations that this year invited a partnered gay activist to share his story before General Conference, but then the delegation leadership prevented a man with an ex-gay testimony from being allowed to similarly speak to them.
If our bishops appoint a monogamously partnered gay or lesbian layperson to the commission, then it would be helpful if they would also appoint at least one theologically traditionalist member from EACH of these categories so rarely heard from in our denominational discourse: a same-sex-attracted person committed to lifelong celibacy, someone with an ex-gay life testimony (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11), and someone with a close family member (such as a child or sibling) who understands that love for their loved one does not require support for a “Reconciling” perspective.
Thirdly, human sexuality is so much broader a category than questions of whether or not to affirm homosexual unions.
I have been vocal in noting that it is difficult for us to have deep, meaningful conversations that promote mutual understanding if we insist on focusing on such narrow questions without ever taking a step back to discuss our positive visions of what God’s overall design is for marriage and sexuality. The commission could be a good opportunity to have such dialogues about more foundational matters, which are more difficult to have within ticking-clock legislative bodies like General Conference. But this would be quite a missed opportunity if the nature of the commission instead moved in the direction of Love Prevails’s vision for it. The motion adopted by General Conference called for a commission to address “human sexuality,” not “homosexuality,” and I hope that that can be honored.
Fourthly, it is long past time that we admit that our denomination’s internal differences about “human sexuality” are not limited to exclusively LGBTQ practices.
While theological traditionalists (by definition) and some more moderate supporters of liberalizing our disapproval of homosexual practice agree that all sex outside of marriage is inherently sinful, some advocates of the “reconciling” cause evidently disagree. This last General Conference saw petitions submitted by the New York Conference, the Upper New York Conference, social-media-active Becca Girrell of New England, and liberal congregations in Oklahoma and Norway which would have, in various ways, removed from our Discipline statements disapproving of pre-marital sex and adultery as well as those disapproving of homosexual practice. The Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) openly defends unmarried clergy being sexually active.
I am certainly not encouraging our bishops to include many advocates of pre-marital sex in the commission (which would contradict points #1 and 3 above), but rather simply to identify the extent of our denomination’s internal divide on “human sexuality,” in hopes that the commission’s work will include discussion of this important aspect.
All of us should be lifting up our bishops and this commission in prayer.