UMC: A New Way

On the heels of General Conference 2016, there are many, various, and legitimate concerns and hopes regarding the Bishops’ establishment of a commission to study human sexuality in ways that take us beyond the current impasse, while at the same time preserving the unity of the denomination.  I write today as one grateful for the leadership of our bishops and the process they have set in motion. But the question that connects all of us is this:  what will it take to make this process a genuinely new way?

In the days following General Conference there will be numerous suggestions made about this, both within the Council of Bishops itself and outside it.  I offer today some of my own thoughts about the question, looking at it from two vantage points.

First, there is a crucial non-negotiable:  no one must sit on the commission whose past or current behavior says, “I can tell you right now how I am going to vote, no matter what I see or hear during the process.”  I do not mean that the commission should be comprised of those who lack conviction, but I do mean it must not be made up of those who hold what today are called opinionated convictions. Partisanship will poison the well before any water is drawn from it.  Just as people are not placed on juries who have already made up their minds about the guilt or innocence of a person, no one must sit on the commission who is closed to the very things the process is designed to bring forth.

Second, the commission must include LGBTQIA members and new-generation United Methodists.  I mean ongoing membership, not just consultation or involvement through listening sessions, etc.  LGBTQIA persons must be members because the process is focused on the paragraphs in the Book of Discipline which directly affect them.  And new-generation United Methodists (those under 40–who were not even alive when all this got started) must be members because they live in a world that is different than it was in 1972 (both in terms of knowledge and experience), and this generation is the one that must live with whatever decision the commission reaches and the General Conference enacts.

Although there are many factors embedded in these two points, my overall conviction is this:  the commission must not be made up of people who have demonstrated over the course of 40+ years that they are either unable or unwilling to lead us beyond the current institutional impasse. It must not be put back into the hands (that is, control) of the very people who have had plenty of time to address the challenge, and whose failure to do so is what has given rise to the need for a commission in the first place.

It must be made up of people whose bedrock conviction is this, “By God’s grace, we can discern and enact a better way.”  If that spirit characterizes the members of the commission, it has real potential to become what the Bishops envisioned in calling for it, and what the General Conference hoped for in approving it–a new way for the denomination.

I hope this blog puts me in the role of “Captain Obvious,” and merely states what is clear to everyone.  But clear or not, I offer these two points for consideration and out of the conviction that new wine must be poured into new wineskins.

At the core, the proposal is a fresh call to prayer in these days immediately following General Conference, not only for those who will be members of the commission, but a call to prayer for the rest of us who support them in their efforts.

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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9 Responses to UMC: A New Way

  1. Suzanne Baldini says:

    I would like to learn more about the comments made by Blue Menace in the last nine or ten lines. I’m not well-versed enough to understand the premise, and would like to know what those who are have to say.

  2. Jamie Westlake says:

    It will no doubt be incredibly difficult to come up with viable solutions that can provide genuine unity as we seek to be the church of Jesus Christ together. For such a daunting task, I think we need all positions- including those who are perceived to be the most strident on either side- represented proportionally on the Study Commission for any proposal to have credibility and be received by a majority of delegates at a called General Conference. I agree with the advice Rev. Chris Ritter has offered to the Council of Bishops: “First, create a commission that looks like our church.”

  3. Tom Pope says:

    People who identify with one of the initials have a vested interest in changing the denominational stance, I don’t see them being particularly objective. At the same time those who do not identify with one of the initials must be objective and open to change, if I read you correctly. I don’t know if it’s possible to get truly unbiased people on this commission from either perspective. Though we disagree on this issue, I value your friendship and am grateful for the way you make me rethink my positions, and hold them or change them for the right reasons.

  4. Larry Kalajainen says:

    Excellent points both, Steve. “Like a mighty tortise moves the church of God./ People, we are treading where we’ve always trod.”

  5. Steve – if the purpose of this group is to actually do anything, it has to keep in mind one critical idea. Whatever it puts forward must be able to clear the very high burden of getting a two-thirds vote both of the General Conference delegates AND of the aggregate members of all AC’s worldwide. African votes exceeded the threshold to functionally veto any changes in 2008 and showed that strength in 2012 where they defeated the Worldwide Nature of the Church amendments overwhelmingly even after they passed the GC by a 2/3 vote. Having said that, I think your proposal – though it seems wise – is most likely to lead to another rejection of the Bishops leadership. The only way this thing has a chance of accomplishing anything, is – to put it bluntly – if the conservative majority is given substantially more representation on the commission and is functionally allowed to write the proposal with input from the moderate and progressive areas. Why? To survive progressives MUST change the structure, and to change the structure the constitution MUST be changed. For traditionalists – to survive and even “win” to put it in crass terms, they need only prevent any structure change for one more GC until they gain 2/3 supermajorities and can then begin instituting policy that will make progressive continuation in the church untenable. These are the political realities. I’m afraid the commission will look more like you envision, and for that reason – I am afraid it stands absolutely no chance of producing anything other than another embarrassment for and rejection of our Bishops.

  6. Thanks Steve, for your wise and clear identification of a way forward. My prayers are that such a path can be found. As to whether you are “Captain Obvious” or not? — No, don’t think so. Yours is a needed option beyond the same old conversations. Phil A

  7. Warren Pattison says:

    Do you think it’s possible to find LGBTQIA people who can meet your first criterion?

  8. Matt Horan says:

    While I wish it were not the case, surely this new process is now being studied by all sides in order to discern how to work within it or influence it in order to gain victory for one view over another. I pray that your voice is heard, Steve, for as usual, you speak at the prompting of the Holy Spirit!

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