UMC: Prayerful & Paced Decisiveness

Chris Ritter characterized my position as one calling the UMC to a quadrennium of prayer and deliberate action between 2016-2020.  I stand by that conviction, and the more so when I saw that my friend, Bishop Rueben Job, wrote similarly in the book, ‘Finding Our Way’ (Abingdon Press, 2014). I am happy to express my position and in doing so, honor the essence of his.

Like most people I know, my position continues to develop as I learn more from personal research and changing circumstances.  That’s not surprising given the fact that we are dealing with the future of an historic denomination seeking to find its way in the 21st century.  As I discover more, I am more convinced that a 2016-2020 decision-making period is still the better way to go.

But I want to be clear that I do not mean an avoidance of the controversy regarding human sexuality or the maintenance of unity that is threatened by our differences on this subject.  What I mean is the need to establish something more than a tug-of-war on this subject, but rather something that would generate a decision based in communal consideration that is largely absent when people talk more about each other than with each other.

But more than that, we need to envision our future based on more than any single topic.  It would, in my opinion, be a mistake to preserve or dissolve unity based on one subject when The United Methodist Church is called by God to bear witness to Christ all over the world in relation to many things.

My position means making use of the 2016-2020 quadrennium to draft a Plan for Unity (that addresses opportunities and  challenges in the context of what it means to be a global church), a plan undergirded by accompanying worldwide prayer–a plan that would be voted on in 2020.

I continue to advocate this for the simple fact that ten days in Portland is not enough time to “gather the fragments” and develop a Plan for Unity that has the breadth and depth to represent United Methodism in the 21st century.  Wisdom is the child of time, and we need time and space to discern and design our future.

We need this, if for no other reason than because our language in the Book of Discipline is dated.  New insights from biblical exegesis, theological reflection, scientific understanding, and global realities are different than when we began the conversation 43 years ago–and even different than was the case in 2012.  We need to design a denomination on the best current reality we have available to us, so that we might be faithful in honoring Charles Wesley’s hymnodic exhortation, “To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill. O, may it all my powers engage, to do my Master’s will.”

So, I am an advocate for actions in Portland along lines that give us time and space for holy conversation–actions that represent our quest for unity through sustained, representative engagement–through Christian Conferencing.  Here are some considerations along that line…

(1) Commit to the preservation of unity in The United Methodist Church.  Vote to remain The United Methodist Church.  This would establish our baseline vision from which the exercise of intention and the discernment of means would proceed.  The matter of remaining united would be fixed, so that the ways of being so could be discerned.

(2) Use plenary time to identify the essential ingredients which must be included in a Plan for Unity–a “How then shall we live?” deliberation of core topics which would become the building blocks for the plan.  Proposals reaching the floor would assist and direct that discussion.

(3) Constitute the group to be responsible for developing the Plan for Unity, with the requirement that it deliver a plan (not a proposal that could be deferred yet again) for unity that will be voted on at the 2020 General Conference.  I assume this group could be The Connectional Table; that is, an already-existing group rather than a newly-created one.  But whatever is best, the group would be a “Round Table” that is representative and respectful while recognizing and accepting its mission.

(4) Remove the prohibitive language regarding human sexuality from the Book of Discipline (as was the case before 1972), so that the commissioned group can be a true “Round Table” engaged in Christian Conferencing, not operating under the shadow of existing language.

(5) In the 2016-2020 interim expand the already-existing provisions for local-option Methodism in The Book of Discipline to allow clergy to decide whether or not to conduct same-sex weddings, to allow congregations to determine whether or not same-sex weddings can be held on church property, and to permit Boards of Ordained Ministry to consider whether or not openly LGBT persons can be ordained, including the consideration of how currently-ordained LGBT persons would no longer have to conceal their orientation in order to remain UM clergy.

(6) Let the human sexuality subject (and others identified as building blocks in the Plan of Union) be developed within the context of global United Methodism, expressed in a revised Book of Discipline that provides sections for universal United Methodism, along with sections for what can be regionalized.

(7) Using the internet and other social media, launch a global prayer initiative for the preservation of unity in the UMC, assigning oversight to an existing entity (e.g. Upper Room Living Prayer Center or United Methodist Communications).  Regular “calls to prayer” (with specific prayer requests) would be issued, with congregations interceding in their regular worship services, in other existing groups and meetings, and in special prayer vigils.

Just writing out these ideas (to say nothing of others that will arise at General Conference) is an example of why I believe it is too much to expect the 2016 General Conference to accomplish all this in a ten-day session next May.

For any who would say, “We have waited long enough; we must act now!”, I would only ask how a rushed decision this coming May is better than a reflective one between 2016-2020.  That kind of pressure (from any caucus or conviction) strikes me as antithetical to the holy conversation aimed (by General Conference action–see #1 above) to produce a Plan for Unity to be voted on in 2020.  Having voted to remain united, would it not stand to reason that we would then move to develop the plan for being so?

But more than procedure,  I ground my hope in the belief that an approach akin to this would be a denomination-wide affirmation of Jeremiah 32:27, “Behold, I am the God of all flesh.  Is anything too hard to me?”  It would create the soil of humility in which discernment can occur and from which good fruit can come.  It would be an expression of faith in Christian Conferencing as a means of grace that God will use to lead us to be more than we can presently ask or imagine–ending up as a denomination that is even better than we are now because we are willing to respond to the Spirit rather than react to each other.

[To complete this opening idea, I will post again tomorrow]

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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4 Responses to UMC: Prayerful & Paced Decisiveness

  1. David Rose says:

    One question…..How do you think the Central Conferences will react to these recommendations
    especially when it comes to human sexuality(GLBT) issues? In particular, some of the Central Conferences come from countries that imprison or kill GLBT persons?

  2. Dianne Wilkinson says:

    Excellent! Well thought out and a future with hope

  3. Amy Gill says:

    Thank you!

  4. Jack Harnish says:

    A voice of reason, a thoughtful approach to a deep and complex discussion. Unfortunately, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, folks tend to look for simple, direct answers to complicated questions rather than allowing time for reflection. I hope and pray an approach such as yours will be heard.

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