UMC: A Good Decision

The General Conference’s approval of a plan put forward by the Council of Bishops is already being variously criticized and affirmed–nothing new for us UM’s.  For some time now, I have believed (and have previously written and spoken) that the matter of human sexuality needed more and different attention than would be possible in ten days in Portland where decisions are made via petitions, committees ,and floor debate.

The bishops’ plan affords us a fresh opportunity to dig into the issues which so often only get superficial attention in our established political processes.  And even though the plan itself must be given further detail, here are some reasons why I believe it is a good decision…

(1) It represents the call of the General Conference itself for greater leadership by our bishops.  We are an episcopal church, and within legitimate boundaries we look to our bishops for leadership, and all the more so when the future of the denomination is (to a large extent) related to the subject of human sexuality.  It would be odd for the bishops not to lead us in such a time.  It would have been even stranger for the Conference to ask for leadership from the bishops one day and then reject it the next.  The bishops heard the plea, and they responded with a plan, and regardless of what individuals and groups may think about it, it is a step in a good direction offered to us by the very group which should set the journey in motion and guide us in it.

(2) The wording of the proposal is not “kicking the can down the road,” but is rather a call for a needed new exploration of factors which have developed since the human sexuality debate began in 1972.  In a previous Oboedire blog, I wrote that one aspect of my concern was that a major decision would be made without the latest information contributing to it.  The plan will enable us to consider factors that were unknown to us 44 years ago.

(3) The plan removes the charge by some that the issue is being driven by emotion rather than by the Holy Spirit–leaving the work of the Holy Spirit artificially deemed to be with one group more than others. Doubtless members of the commission will advocate their positions with passion and conviction, but they will do so in a structure far less likely to skew the process as floor debates (and related activities) are prone to do.  We have seen this already in Portland. The bishop’s plan provides for a better setting to engage in sustained and substantive conversation, including talking with each other rather than about each other.

(4) The plan creates a global-church forum, something that the process of limited pro/con debate in Roberts Rules of Order cannot provide.  Our commitment to being a global church will be reflected in the makeup of the commission.

I have other reasons for thinking that the plan is a good one, but these are sufficient to illustrate my belief.

But wrapped around all of this is something that I believe is even most critical if we are to see the commission function as the plan expects:  it must be comprised of members with broken and contrite hearts–hearts pulverized (meaning of the Hebrew) down to a powder, so that the Breath of God can blow us in divine directions.

In my humble opinion, the absence of this broken and contrite spirit has characterized too much of our dialog for too long.  Warfare language sets things in victor/vanquished language, which then ignites our egos to “never give up until we (our side) wins.”  The potential for stalemate and harm is created when soul-deep sadness that we have allowed our differences to bring us to this place is missing.

Signs of our lack of contrition have already been seen in plenary sessions when people applaud, shout remarks, or laugh outloud when decisions are made that please some and sadden others.  Creating winners and losers is not a good theology of what it means to be fellow members in the Body of Christ.

This means that members of the commission, while representing all points of view, must not be those who have kept the vitriol flowing, no matter the perspective.  The plan puts us in a time of Gospel paradox, when the greatest of all must be servant of all–and that means beginning with Romans 3:23 at the center of the relationships between and among commission members–the “poverty of spirit” that launched Jesus’ sermon on the mount and is the hallmark of our theology of love.  It means meeting with the conviction and that every member is a genuine Christian, seeking to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and wanting the best for the denomination. It means respecting everyone by being quick to listen and slow to speak.

It means that spiritual formation principles (that is, what characterizes people of maturity and wisdom–most notably the fruit of the Spirit) will ultimately shape the work and outcome of the commission.  It means that at this moment, the key call is the call to prayer–our beseeching God to give every commission member (and those of us who wait and watch) broken and contrite hearts.  This is our greatest internal need, and the main ingredient of our witness to the world in the coming years.  It is the only spirit that can create a denomination which truly makes disciples for the transformation of the world.

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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3 Responses to UMC: A Good Decision

  1. rogerdowdy says:

    Steve, thank you for this solid perspective and analysis. UM Deacon, Roger Dowdy

  2. sumac918 says:

    I pray our Council of Bishops will develop deep spiritual practices for listening to God if they don’t already, and if they currently have a practice, they will “double down” on the work of Holy Listening, individually, and together. The process by which many divided UMC churches have engaged this issue–listening, reading, praying, sharing, and opening to new ways of understanding homosexuality is risky business, indeed, but the shalom that comes of being attuned to God’s leading makes it worthwhile. Our church took several years to get there, and we are in a very healthy, whole, and holy place after much work.

  3. Gabe Wright says:

    As always I am so moved by your ability to articulate with love and humility that still remains true to who you are. My heart breaks as I hear about us & them. I came to the Church as Christ embodied in this world and instead find it, often, harsher than secular groups. At this point I’m just glad I can retire in only 1 1/2 more years.

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