From February 23-26, 800+ delegates (half clergy, half laity) representing annual conferences from around the world, will meet in St. Louis for a Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The purpose will be to receive and act on a report from the Commission on a Way Forward based on the recommendations of the Council of Bishops. The 32-member Commission was authorized by General Conference 2016 and appointed by the Council of Bishops to examine paragraphs in The Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and exploring options to strengthen the unity of the church.
These are the facts. More factual information, including the report of the Commission on a Way Forward, can be found at http://www.umc.org/topics/general-conference-2019-special-session – I’d particularly recommend downloading and reading the final report from the Commission which shows the actual plans that are before the Special Session without any commentary from the right, left, or center.
For some of us, this is a topic that we have followed with keen interest for decades, but particularly since the 2016 General Conference. For some of us, this is something that we have heard a little about over the past few months, and we have dismissed it, researched it, or something in between. And for others of us, this is new news entirely. What is General Conference? What is The Book of Discipline? What is the Commission on a Way Forward? Why are we talking about human sexuality?
For most United Methodists, particularly for laity, I suspect that the most important question is, “How will this affect my local church?” It does not take long to discover that our denomination will be spending millions of dollars for a global meeting to decide how, as a denomination, we will address homosexuality with regards to marriage and ordination (currently our stance is that all persons are persons of sacred worth and that participation in the UMC by persons of any sexuality is permissible, with the exception of ordination and clergy officiating same-sex weddings – and there is nothing before the Special Session that will change the first part of that). Furthermore, most, if not all, of us have on one level or another wrestled with the “issue” of homosexuality/human sexuality and have come to a decision point about that. Nothing that General Conference decides is really going to change anyone’s mind about whether we think or feel that homosexuality is right or wrong or somewhere in between; whether Scripture has anything definitive to say about the issue, and if it does, whether it is relevant; or whether we think gay people should or should not be pastors. But…
But…the Special Session will meet. And it will either adopt new language regarding this issue (or not), and therefore the political reality of our denomination will be affected. It is not hyperbolic to ask whether The United Methodist Church will continue to exist as a denomination or not. Nor is it hyperbolic to wonder what shape the denomination will take if it does continue to exist.
Will the “traditionalists” win and secure the church’s stance on Biblical authority, global accountability for bishops and clergy, and once and for all end the divisive debate over this topic? Will the “progressives” win and provide ordination rights for homosexuals, opportunities for same-sex weddings in United Methodist churches, and once and for all end the divisive debate over this topic? Will “winning” for either side be a Pyrrhic victory, burning down the denomination, splitting not only our denomination, but local churches in such a way that ministries end, bonds of fellowship are broken, and Christ is shamed in the eyes of the world?
I do not have an answer to any of the questions above. Like everyone else, I will be watching what happens in St. Louis with great anticipation. I certainly have a preference as to what I would like to see happen; though my preference of an outcome in church polity and language is far less important to me than my preference for an outcome in church unity and practice. And I have some pastoral advice for each of us.
First, pray. Begin now praying for the Holy Spirit to be active now and in St. Louis for each of the delegates and for all United Methodists. Pray that God’s will is revealed and expressed by the actions of General Conference and by all United Methodists so that the witness of the love of Christ is shared with the world. Next, study. Before you form an opinion or even more importantly, express a thought, be well versed on what is happening, what is before the Special Session, and what The United Methodist Church’s stance and polity are currently and what they may be potentially. Currently, it is far too easy to share misinformation. Doing so intentionally or unintentionally never aids the Body of Christ. The links provided above are the only place where one can discover each of the plans in their entirety without bias. Next, breathe. Stop for a moment and just breathe. Do not let the anxiety and fear of this world take you to a place of hostility, paranoia, or destruction. Remember that God is still God (whether we United Methodists mess up our denomination or not). Furthermore, remember that First United Methodist Church of Sheridan is and has been living with a membership full of people who hold different and deeply-held beliefs that are contrary to one another for a long time. And we still love one another. And we still work together in ministry. And we still gather to worship our God at least every week and share in Holy Communion at Christ’s Table at least every month. I can’t imagine anything that happens in St. Louis will break the bonds of fellowship and love that are shared by the many people of our church.
Finally, a personal word: I believe that the issue of human sexuality (including homosexuality) is of interest to God and therefore to God’s people. This is not unimportant. The division that exists in our denomination represents the division in our country and our world and touches on topics such as the authority of scripture, justice for the least of these, and the meeting of this fallen world and the Kingdom of God. Each of these topics represents more than just a single conversation or Sunday School lesson; indeed, earnest and loving Christians have written tomes upon tomes. If theology is faith seeking understanding, then the exercise of unpacking these topics is of extreme importance. However. However. However. I do not think that the issue of human sexuality (including homosexuality) is at the core of our beliefs as United Methodist Christians. I think that our understanding of grace and the process of salvation; the relationship with a Holy Other that is available through Jesus Christ; the means by which the Creator continues to be in relationship with us, God’s people, through Baptism and Holy Communion (and what those sacraments represent and how we as United Methodists understand what is happening when we partake); and the work of the Holy Spirit in and through real persons in today’s world are each topics that are more definitive of what it means to be a United Methodist Christian than other topics.
I hope that you will join me in praying for a positive outcome for the Body of Christ. I also encourage you to know that whatever develops from the events in St. Louis this month, First United Methodist Church of Sheridan will continue to be a church, will continue to worship together, will continue to offer ministry to our community and the world, and most importantly, will continue to seek to bear witness to the love of God through Jesus Christ for the people of the world.