Lots of anxiety and expectation has surrounded the naming of a special Commission on Human Sexuality by the UMC’s Council of Bishops. The primary work of deciding who gets on (taken from a pool of over 300 United Methodists nominated by individual bishops) was to have been done by the Executive Committee elected by the Council of Bishops, in consultation with the three bishops named as commission moderators (Ken Carter of Florida, Sandra Steiner-Ball of West Virginia, and David Yemba of the Central Congo).
It is a rather demonstrable fact that again and again, when the Council of Bishops has been entrusted with appointing people to various positions and groups, their choices have repeatedly over-represented some of the most aggressively theologically revisionist voices while under-representing traditionalist evangelicals. It is especially egregious to see multiple examples in recent years of our bishops effectively punishing the good behavior of evangelical United Methodists who respectfully play by the rules while rewarding the any-means-necessary bad behavior of liberal protesters, especially in terms of our bishops’ decisions about who they go out of their ways to appease and who they ignore.
Before the final list of appointees was announced, opinion among orthodox United Methodists seemed to range from those who declared, based largely on this track record, that it was “a foregone conclusion,” in one friend’s words, that this special commission would waste a lot of time and money to accomplish nothing (like the Connectional Table did), to others who talked about how now our bishops finally “get it” and understand that the United Methodist Church can no longer afford for them to continue to run it as they have been running it for the last many years.
For my part, I wrote several weeks ago: “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.”
Now that our bishops have announced the 32 members they appointed to the commission (which can all be read here), what have we learned?
Which voices have they collectively decided to include, exclude, over-represent, and under-represent?
(Note: when I talk in this article about “our bishops,” I refer to their collective decisions, understanding that many individual bishops may have wished things were more one way or another.)
First, a couple observations.
In terms of leaders of unofficial caucuses, the commission includes the general manager of the Good News caucus (Rev. Tom Lambrecht, who is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council), another member of the WCA Council (Rev. Jessica LaGrone), the Executive Director of the Confessing Movement (Patricia Miller), the executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), the main caucus seeking to overturn the UMC’s traditionalist values on marriage and sex (Matt Berryman), a current RMN board member (David Nuckols), and a former RMN board member (Brian Adkins). Furthermore, the congregation of which Nuckols is a member, as well as those pastored by Adkins and the one pastored by another commissioner, Rev. Donna Pritchard, are all formally affiliated with RMN, in open violation of longstanding church law.
Someone has already noted that the bishops (other than the moderators) are split between six men and two women, while the other members are split evenly, 12 men and 12 women.
So who have our bishops chose to especially privilege on this commission?
Many were surprised to hear of how the bishops included so many of their own on this commission.
Of the commission’s 21 recently named members who are clergy, six serve as senior pastors of a congregation (ranging in sizes), one serves as an associate pastor, two serve as general-agency employees, two serve as annual-conference employees, one serves as a caucus staffer, one serves as dean of a seminary chapel, and eight are active bishops (in addition to the three moderators). Half of the bishops serve on the Council of Bishops executive committee. Two of the clergy are deacons.
Including the three moderators, a whopping eleven out of the thirty-five people involved in this commission (31.4 percent) are bishops. All of the remaining 24 members owe their appointments on the commission to bishops.
2. The Western Jurisdiction
While constituting less than two percent of our denomination’s membership, the U.S. Western Jurisdiction is home to three (9.4 percent) of the commission members.
That’s a rather proportionally dramatic over-representation for what everyone knows is by far the most theologically liberal region of our denomination
As I have written about earlier, there has long been a major imbalance of the Western Jurisdiction being dramatically over-represented in church leadership. During the 2013-2016 quadrennium, the Western Jurisdiction’s bloated number of bishops held the presidency of our denomination’s global Council of Bishops, the presidencies of three denominational general agencies, the vice presidency of the powerful Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, the chairmanship of the Study of Ministry Commission, and the position of the lone Ex Officio Representative Council of Bishops on the very powerful Commission on the General Conference.
Evidently, our bishops did not see continuing such unique concentration of denominational power in this one particular region as a problem.
3. Gay Activists Uncommitted to Celibacy
Way too much noise and attempts at manufactured outrage have already been made about there allegedly somehow not being enough “LGBTQ” people on the commission.
One commissioner, Matt Berryman, apparently abandoned his former United Methodist clergy status over his unwillingness to abide by our denomination’s traditional standards for clergy (no sexual relations outside marriage between one man and one woman). According to a supporter of this action, commissioner Brian Adkins was one of three “LGBTQ clergy” ordained just this year in the California-Nevada Conference “in direct conflict with the Book of Discipline – it is an act of ‘ecclesial disobedience,’ if you will.” I know of at least one other commissioner who is legally “married” to someone of the same-gender.
Considering that likely no more than two percent of United Methodists (if that) self-identify as LGBTQ, this rather tiny demographic getting tthree out of 32 slots (nearly 10 percent) is quite an over-representation.
Complaints about how even this many is not enough, because it falls short of Amy DeLong’s earlier “demand” (her word) that the commission be controlled by an outright majority of LGBTQ activists, deserve to be treated with the same level of seriousness as rhetoric earlier this year about how forcing every UMC annual conference to accept same-sex unions and homosexually active clergy was somehow a “compromise.”
Furthermore, as I noted earlier, human sexuality is something that also involves the other 98 percent of us. It is impossible to go far in intelligently addressing hot-button questions as the best position to take on same-sex unions without first addressing more foundational matters of God’s design for sexuality and marriage, let alone the ways in which many activists seeking church approval of homosexual practice also oppose our disapproval of pre-marital sex and adultery.
Any reasonably minded supporter of liberalizing our sexuality standards should be thrilled at how our bishops went out of their way to include at least three LGBTQ activists in this commission that General Conference, after all, tasked with addressing “human sexuality,” not just homosexuality.
In fact, according to Council of Bishops President Bruce Ough, one of the explicit criteria they used for selecting commission members was that they sought “Individuals in and related to the LGBTQ community.”
I have sent inquiries to relevant bishops asking if they included any commission members who are same-sex-attracted Christians who are theologically orthodox and therefore committed to lifelong celibacy/abstinence, and/or who have “ex-gay testimonies” of no longer being same-sex-attracted after being so in earlier periods of their lives. So far, I have heard nothing back from them.
Do our bishops really believe that the many such brothers and sisters in Christ, who have also become adopted as beloved children of God, have absolutely NOTHING to offer to our denominational discussions about homosexuality, and if by some miracle such experiences ever get discussed in the commission, brothers and sisters in the ex-gay and celibate-gay communities cannot be allowed to speak for themselves?
So other than members of these important demographics, what other groups in our denomination have had their voices significantly diminished or even silenced by how the commission was constituted?
It has been a long-documented problem that African United Methodists, despite accounting for a very large portion of our global denomination’s membership and its only major regions experiencing rapid growth, continue to be very systemically marginalized and tokenized in the upper echelons of denominational power.
As noted above, one of the three commission moderators is Congolese Bishop David Yemba. But of the recently announced commission members, only seven out of thirty-two (21.9 percent) are Africans. That is only about half of the portion of all United Methodists who live in Sub-Saharan Africa (roughly 40 percent)!
It is relevant to note here that the executive committee elected by the Council of Bishops, the group that was played a central role in picking commission members, does not include a single African bishop. Think about that! The majority of our bishops apparently believe that of the over one dozen of their colleagues they elect to lead other bishops in various ways, there is not room for a single episcopal leader of a growing African conference, but there is plenty of room in the executive committee for several aggressively liberal U.S. bishops known for abusing their power within their conferences to break our Disciplinary covenant, marginalize orthodox believers, and/or provoke massive membership losses.
Should we really be that surprised that this African-less group of bishops showed that they could not be trusted to provide for anything remotely approaching fair representation for African United Methodists on this commission?
2. The Northern Europe & Eurasia Central Conference
There is at least one commission member for each one of the seven central conferences into which our denomination is organized outside of the United States.
Except for the Northern Europe & Eurasia Central Conference, whose leadership has publicly protested their exclusion.
If our bishops were committed to including and representing all voices in our denomination, this was a rather striking oversight.
This central conference includes the bulk of the formerly Communist nations of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. While this distinction gets lost in how our denominational discourse sometimes lumps “the Europeans” together, United Methodists in the multiple annual conferences we have in this particular region face VERY different cultures, political situations, and ministry contexts than those in Western Europe.
Could our bishops not have spared a single commission slot to hear from our brothers and sisters in this part of the world?
It also seems curious how our bishops chose to single out the Northern Europe & Eurasia Central Conference for exclusion given the facts that our bishops made this decision long after the public announcement of a resolution submitted to that central conference’s 2016 session disapproving of actions of “non-conformity” with our denomination’s standards on marriage and sex, and that anyone who knew much of anything about that central conference’s politics understood that that resolution was likely to pass, in some form, at its now-recently concluded meeting (which it did, overwhelmingly).
3. United Methodism’s Global Orthodox Majority
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from last May’s 2016 General Conference was the emergence of a new, global orthodox majority in the life of our denomination.
Yet the commission appears to have been formed by our bishops to NOT reflect the theological center of gravity of our denomination – and certainly not of the 2016 General Conference which entrusted our bishop with forming a representative commission.
I am pleased that some faithful, evangelical friends I have known and worked with for years have been appointed to the commission.
But from my analysis of the group as a whole, it appears to be rather disproportionately weighted to the advantage of theological revisionists.
I am told that our bishops wanted to avoid appointing anyone who was a “lightning rod.” But this appears to have been only rather selectively applied to exclude certain evangelical and/or “centrist” individuals. The sub-group of commissioners favoring liberalizing our standards includes some especially vehement activists who have been particularly forceful and/or public in recent years in using their positions of power to unfairly exclude evangelical United Methodists, promote blatant defiance of the disciplinary covenant that is supposed to unite our denomination together, pursuing an any-means-necessary ethos in advancing their agenda, and in at least one case, very aggressively “trolling” non-liberals on social media.
I am not aware of any theologically orthodox commissioner doing any of these things.
In fact, one liberal commission member, the aforementioned Matt Berryman, has already, before the commission has even had a chance to meet, publicly attacked the commission as “not legitimate,” apparently because of the demands noted above that the commission have an LGBTQ majority. He also used this as an opportunity to publicly vowed to continue promoting covenant-breaking with the rest of us in the UMC.
(I will take a slight detour to say a couple of nice things about Matt. When I run into him at meetings, he always responds when I say hello, which is already much more than I can say for other leaders in the “Reconciling” movement. In fact, on a strictly interpersonal level, I have always found him to be civil and friendly in our one-on-one chats. And resigning one’s clergy status when one is unwilling to follow the rules demonstrates a lot more integrity than people like Mr. Adkins seeking ordination in open defiance of the rules.)
It is worth remembering that the record shows that the portion of our church who support wholesale liberalization of our denomination’s standards on homosexuality (leaving alone those who would go further by eroding United Methodist disapproval of extra-marital sex more generally) is not nearly as sizable as it is made out to be. The last time a General Conference voted on our prohibition of same-sex unions (the main focus of RMN’s disobedience movement) was in 2008, when it was retained by a super-majority vote of 64.5 percent. By all accounts, the delegates at the next General Conference (2012) were significantly more traditionalist, and then the delegates at this year’s General Conference were even more so. At both of the last two General Conferences, liberal activists discerned so little support for deleting this prohibition that they gave up even trying to bring it to a final vote.
While there is no evidence that more than about one-third of the clergy and active lay members of our global denomination favor lifting the ban on same-sex unions, this rather vocal minority looks like it will be extraordinarily well represented on this commission.
So once again, our bishops have collectively chosen to appoint a commission that appears stacked with some of the most belligerent liberal activists, including a strikingly large number who personally identify as LGBTQ, and that systematically under-represents evangelicals and Africans while over-representing the Western Jurisdiction.
While this is disappointing, it is hardly a break from our bishops’ business as usual.