Reading Between the Lines: Commission on a Way Forward and Why I am Hopeful.

The United Methodist Church is engaged in a two and a half year process of discernment about what we are called to be and how we are called to witness to the love of Jesus Christ as a 21st century Church. Accelerating toward both the 2019 and 2020 general conferences, many views are going to find their way into the public sphere. As a practitioner, researcher, and professor of United Methodist Polity, it is time to ad my voice to the “multilogue” about the future of the UMC. Because I believe that the seeds of what we are now reaping were planted deeply in Methodist soil decades, even a century and a half ago, my views are rooted in historic decisions and assumptions that need to be heard and understood. But I am also a sociologist and ethicist by training, and so, some of what I will share will reflect directly on current events.

I happen to be one who deeply appreciates the care and seriousness with which the Commission on a Way Forward is doing its work. Formed by the Council of Bishops its most recent report demonstrates how it has embraced its mandate to seek a way forward out of the impasse that has plagued The United Methodist Church over issues related to homosexuality and our consequent questions that emerged about unity and the possibility of schism.

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Why does the Commission on the Way Forward Matter?

It matters because in the past, “schism” has resulted not just from deeply held differences about major compelling issues, but because the leaders of denomination(s) did not have the innate skills or structure to even imagine the idea of a Commission. The schism of 1828-1830 the split the Methodist Protestant Church from the Methodist Episcopal Church resulted from the expulsion of dissident leaders and the enactment of legislation that basically no clergy could “spread dissension” among the body. The 1844 schism that resulted in the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the remaining Methodist Episcopal Church, came at the end of a six week long general conference that not only ended with the Bishop Andrew could own slaves and remain a bishop, but began with an appeal of a Maryland clergyman who would not free his slaves in a state where manumission was legal.

That the General Conference of 2016 even had the spiritual, emotional, and legislative where-with-all to ask the Council of Bishops to propose a means by which we could try and navigate a way forward, was in my mind, a God-inspired step toward resolution of our impasse.

Do I wish the Commission would “hurry up”? Sure. Do I wish they could share more information? Sure. Do I wish I could be an observer to their closed meetings? Sure. But do I trust them to carry out their mission and present the UMC with a workable way forward for most of us? ABSOLUTELY!

The Commission defined its mission to “bring together persons deeply committed to the future(s) of The United Methodist Church (UMC), with an openness to developing new relationships with each other and exploring the potential future(s) of our denomination in light of General Conference and subsequent annual, jurisdictional and central conference actions.” 

Its stated vision is to “design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible.”

I strongly encourage everyone to go to the following webpage to access the Commission’s latest report following their fourth of nine meetings, released on July 26, 2017: See the report here .

Let’s look closer.

My first impression is that they have clearly embraced the importance of contextualization.

Check out the stated “Goals for the Final Report.” While already a part of its vision statement, the goals statement uses phrases that have never been applied to Methodism in the past: “dynamic, flexible, and contextual connection,” “separate and common ministry,” “enable(ing) people with contradictory convictions to flourish,” “multiple versions of the Book of Discipline,” and “global connection in loosely configured structure.” 

After almost eight decades of ever-evolving, increasingly strangling structures and procedures reached through contentious debate in the general conferences of both the UMC and its predecessor, the Methodist Church (MC), this is a welcome and refreshing picture.  So also, pay attention to how these goals are framed. First, we find a statement of what must be the basis for unity: shared “values of unity and mission” and a “common theological center.” And then, the goals that focus on establishing a means for enabling contextualization are framed by two additional cryptic goals. The first is “a new church that doesn’t look like the current church.” Holy cow! A new way of being church in the 21st century! I hope we are so brave. Then, at the end, is the zinger, “allowance for those who don’t adopt the new structure.” Could it be that we find a gracious way of helping folks exit who can’t get on board with the new plan?

What is so hopeful about this?

As a practitioner and professor, which means I am both a lover and hater of UM polity my observation has been that our procedures and structures became the key tools for competing groups to attempt to wrest control of the mission and vision of the Church from those who had won control in the previous conference. Our system for changing the rules through the General Conference became more and more dysfunctional the larger, more complex, and more diverse the MC and UMC became.

This means that procedures and structures reinforced our divisions because we had in some way to strive for unanimity among everyone from all parts of the international church. The 2016 General Conference finally, finally held the mirror up to the Church and as painful as it was, helped us to see that we simply could not go on, the way we have always gone on before.

What is implied in these goals is the development of processes and structure that allow for decision-making about issues that we have normally reserved for the general conference to take place at more local levels.

This is the principle of subsidiarity applied to our polity. This kind of de-centralization would make room for what the Commission calls “differences in practices and non-essentials for the sake of contextual mission” and it is a radical shift from “the way we have always done it before.”

A second point that gives me hope is that through the Colloquy, in which I was a participant, members of the commission have truly listened to what we participants researched and shared.

For anyone who is interested, these papers will be made public toward the end of the year. But, one of the things that the Colloquy offered was a removal of the snapshot lens with which we were all focusing on the issue of human sexuality and place it in within the Ken Burn’s like mini-series of the complicated divisions and mergers of Methodism and the secular realities – that is to say, the contextual realities  that prompted them. I would like to offer a “thanks for listening” to the Commission for that.

A third point that gives me hope is that woven throughout is the implication that there is a difference between schism and grace-full, orchestrated and well-organized distancing. The game is no longer “all or nothing” is it “both-and.”

The truth is, we all need breathing room. No one has to threaten leaving anymore, because the plan will open the door for you to go. I’m at peace with that now more than ever before.

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