As the UMC Council of Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward meets this week, I thought it would be appropriate to share UMAction’s response to its request for input. This commission was established by a close vote at the 2016 General Conference, for the sake of devising a major plan to address our denomination’s internal conflicts related to sexual morality. Their plan will be submitted for consideration at a specially called General Conference in 2019, to which I will be a voting delegate.
Some time ago, the commission sent an invitation to various unofficial caucus groups within our denomination, including to IRD’s UMAction program, saying the following:
As you know, the Commission on a Way Forward was established after the 2016 General Conference to find a way forward for the United Methodist Church. Our way forward must move us beyond the continuing impasse over the nature, conditions, and extent of the inclusion of LGBTQ people within the Church. We want to emphasize that we are not dealing with an abstract problem, but with people who are loved by God and are members of our Church.
The Commission values your voice and would like to receive your input prior to writing and submitting our final report to the Council of Bishops. Because there are so many groups desiring to participate in this discussion, we have developed two ways between which you may choose one.
Submit a three-minute video and send it to us. A video shot on a cell phone is perfectly acceptable.
Or submit a two-page written document.
In your video or document, please respond to the following: Describe your constituency’s preferred future for our denomination regarding the nature, conditions and extent of the inclusion of LGBTQ people within the Church.
UMAction’s response is shared below:
UM Action input to the Commission on a Way Forward
UMAction is grateful for this opportunity to share our concerns and perspectives, offered by Director John Lomperis after consultation with my Steering Committee and Advisory Board.
You are right to that this concerns very real people loved by God and us. It is hard to talk in a theologically rich way about the question as it is framed, in isolation from more foundational matters of the original call about “human sexuality.” Our tensions and conflicts over the presenting challenge of how be in ministry with people who self-identify as LGBTQ has been exacerbated by how often our talk about “human sexuality” rushes to such an exclusively narrow focus, without much prior discussion of how we as Wesleyan Christians think biblically and theologically about sexuality, marriage, and humanity (including how we are ALL sinners in need of forgiveness and repentance). Such broader questions are inescapably relevant. After all, several self-described advocates for “full inclusion” sent petitions to the last General Conference that would have also removed our denomination’s long-standing disapprovals of pre-marital sex and/or adultery.
UMAction’s Steering Committee, Advisory Board, and staff all LOVE our friends, fellow church members, and, yes, family members who self-identify as LGTBTQ, as well as those who experience same-sex attractions and/or dysphoria about their biological sex but who may not embrace that acronym. We want them to stay in our families and churches. But our UMC discourse often becomes misleading or even toxic when traditionalists are caricatured as “hating gays” or we do not listen enough to our ex-gay sisters and brothers or to those who remain same-sex attracted while, because of their faith, choosing celibacy. The way the moral high ground claimed by full-inclusion advocates has become a rationale for marginalizing and mistreating faithful United Methodists in several regions, especially the Western Jurisdiction, has to stop. In alliance with increasingly powerful secular forces, some within United Methodism even support societal marginalization and denial of basic religious liberty for Christians and others who affirm traditional sexual ethics, seemingly prioritizing sexual liberty over liberty of conscience, and withholding solidarity with fellow Christians per 1 Corinthians 12:26.
The question was never if we should be in loving ministry with LGBTQ people, but how. UMAction’s constituency believes that, as with all else, our approach must be shaped by Scripture, “the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” and “the basic criterion by which the truth and fidelity of any interpretation of faith is measured” (¶105). We feel frustrated and hurt whenever support for the UMC’s official values is treated by church leaders as just one opinion among many, let alone as somehow extreme or unloving. Our basic position is the same affirmed by our denomination for over four decades (longer than I’ve been alive!), the consistent teaching of the church universal (including John Wesley) for 2,000 years, and the overwhelming global ecumenical consensus today. Even liberal biblical scholars admit the consistently clear negative warnings of Scripture against homosexual practice. The sexual-morality standards of Leviticus 18, singled out for re-affirmation by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, are in turn affirmed by any clear interpretation of #VI of the Methodist Articles of Religion of which I am aware. So we are not a special-interest minority but rather are well within the mainstream of United Methodist doctrine and discipline. This is our church, whose covenant and values we embrace. In the multiple hats I wear, I have worked for the cohesion and unity of United Methodists, and want to find a way to keep the bulk of United Methodists together in meaningful covenantal unity and commitment to the core doctrinal standards which we already have.
We expect to be involved in continued conversations and ministries related to LGBTQ communities, given the realities of Western culture as well our relationships with loved ones in and beyond the LGBTQ community. Loving people as we would want to be loved includes standing firm against the violence and name-calling too often directed against those who are same-sex-attracted and/or struggling with gender identity. It also no less necessitates our insisting that church leaders, by both teaching and personal example, promote the boundaries for sexual self-control that we believe God gave us for our own good (which includes but is much broader than refraining from homosexual practice). Just as the early Methodists understood that Christian love involves challenging each other’s sins within a loving communal environment, as we pursue Scriptural holiness together, so today we do not believe it is possible to love fellow members of our same church as Christian brothers and sisters without lovingly, firmly, and persistently confronting those who practice homosexuality (or pre-marital sex or pornography) and calling them to repentance. In light of such teachings as 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, perhaps the most damaging thing a church can do is encourage someone to continue in any serious and ultimately self-destructive sin, especially through a public religious rite like a union blessing.
One of the significant casualties of the creation of the Way Forward Commission was the tabling of Petition #60797, which passed in committee and was expected to pass in plenary, and would have promoted “compassion without compromise” resources to guide UMC congregations currently doing little to be in ministry with the LGBTQ community. I hope that the Commission will include this petition as part of its final report (or at least allow a petition for the plenary of delegates to consider this), to give a fair hearing for this and other important committee-passed petitions from 2016.
Because of our faith and understanding of Christian love, we absolutely do not believe it can be possible to honor God and love others while also accepting any sort of “local option” on sexuality standards. Such proposals are not at all “compromises,” but are in fact essentially the same changes for which the Reconciling movement has pushed for many years, and which split the Episcopal Church and other denominations. As one steering committee member put it, we cannot accept anyone being in leadership while practicing any sort of sexual sin and refusing to even admit it is sinful, because if we cannot agree on what is sinful, how can we make disciples together? Any explicit official allowance within UMC law for what we understand to be sexual sin would for us create an impossible contradiction within our membership vows “To be loyal to Christ — through The United Methodist Church.” Any plan that involves affirming practices within our church that Scripture calls sexual sin, no matter how this was justified in the name of any “greater good,” would be strongly opposed by UMAction along with other United Methodists from all four central-conference continents, would stand almost zero chance of passing at General Conference, and if passed, would likely guarantee a major schism, with bitter conflicts and severed relationships at every level of the church.
For the sake of honest communication, I must tell you that I am hearing from much of my constituency a view that the Way Forward Commission is just a one-sided liberal “plot” designed all along to push some sort of local option. Anything you could do to dispel such suspicions will be essential for winning trust.
Nor can we accept a de facto local option of keeping our standards while allowing leaders in some regions to publicly defy them. Such a system effectively rewards and encourages intentional dishonesty, nullifies our communal covenant, and destroys any basis for trust. I cannot see a “Way Forward” that would not involve adopting Petitions 60027 and  to reform “just resolutions,” as amended and passed in committee in 2016. (60027 was a rare one endorsed by both the Renewal and Reform Coalition AND the Love Your Neighbor Coalition!) The Coordinator of the Calendar has confirmed on-record to me that while neither mentions sexuality, the Agenda Committee yanked both from the calendar almost right before the plenary was scheduled to vote on them, judging that they were sexuality-related and thus should be addressed by the Way Forward Commission. The Commission recommending the substance of these amended petitions, or at least permitting others to re-submit such petitions to the 2019 Conference, could go a long way to show publicly that it is operating in good faith.
Trust in the UMC is at an all-time low. Trust is the essential glue binding any large group, and we cannot survive without it. While we can respect and work with those liberals who trustworthily keep their word to God and us, that vocal but relatively small minority openly breaking trust must choose: either embrace our covenant with integrity or else find another context to live outside of it. For dissenters in the latter group, we would support a process for them to be treated graciously and generously, as we ourselves would want to be treated if we were in their shoes, in moving into a new church (perhaps yet to be created). Most urgent to the Commission’s work is restoring trust in the life of the church you and we love. Your invitation to send this input is an important and appreciated first step. I hope that this submission is helpful to your conversations and decisions.