In this week’s post, the Rev. Chris Ritter analyzes three preliminary options for definitively resolving The United Methodist Church’s debate over its sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and it ordination standards. The Commission on a Way Forward recently shared the potential options with the Council of Bishops, which in turn shared them with the whole church.
Ritter, Directing Pastor at Geneseo First UMC (Geneseo, Illinois) and member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council, is widely known for plans he has proposed and for his incisive analysis of others.
United Methodists have been waiting for the November 2017 Council of Bishops meeting to determine what the proceedings might reveal about the status of the proposed Way Forward. That meeting closed today. Our bishops head home from Lake Junaluska having spent quite a bit of time hearing from the Commission on a Way Forward and one another. Here are five things I notice:
1. The cement is still very wet.
Three very broad and mutually exclusive categories of solutions were presented as possibilities. This is basically the same list several of us generated three years ago. The Commission on a Way Forward seems not to have yet settled on any of these nor have they asked the bishops to do so. It appears each of these models will be further developed before decisions are made. It is possible that the Commission will stop short of recommending a single solution to the bishops.
2. Bishops will carry the ball.
A third of the Commission members are bishops and the group is moderated by three additional bishops. The Council of Bishops will be the one producing a final proposal in May. Legislation needs to be in the hands of General Conference delegates by July 2018. To meet this deadline, they have added a February meeting to their schedule. The Council of Bishops is definitely the group to watch. This is all very interesting because this is a body so divided they have not been able to produce a meaningful statement on the human sexuality crisis in the church to date. It is also a group highly invested in the status quo.
Bishops I respect left the May 2017 meeting quite concerned. I notice they seem to be leaving the November meeting a bit more hopeful. There will be feverish sideline negotiations over the next few months. Anything could happen. Concerned United Methodists should definitely use this time to communicate with their own bishops.
Some have speculated that it is at least possible that the Council will present more than one option to General Conference 2019. I don’t believe this is the intention of the Council’s leadership. The formation of the Commission was a successful Hail Mary pass by the institution to table all human sexuality legislation until a special General Conference could be called. Bishops, who normally only adorn the stage at General Conference “like potted plants”, were invited to bring sweeping legislation. General Conference loaned power to the Council that they will soon be taking back. I can’t imagine our episcopal leadership willingly throwing away their shot. I am sure they also appreciate the urgency of the moment.
3. Bishop Oliveto preached.
My phone lit up this week when it was released that Bishop Karen Oliveto was a featured preacher and celebrant for a Council worship service this week. Several friends read this as a large middle finger extended to Traditionalists, not to mention to the Book of Discipline our bishops vow to uphold. It is tempting to view as tactical the invitation for Oliveto to preach at such a critical juncture.
I am assured it was not: “All the new bishops are rotating through as preachers to the Council on a schedule produced by the Worship Committee. It was simply her turn. The Council has no role in selecting its own members or holding them accountable. She is a full participant until her jurisdiction rules otherwise. Nothing to see here.”
The optics of Bishop Oliveto presiding peacefully alongside one of her African episcopal colleagues was welcome to many in the room. Bishop Muyombo* served the cup and Bishop Oliveto the bread. There seems to be a message here about a possible future. “Africa can have their own rules. The U.S. can have ours. We really only ever have to see each other at meetings like these. That’s not such a high cost for the financial spigot to stay in the “on” position, right?” Again, I am told these speculations are off base.
4. African bishops strike a new tone.
On issues of human sexuality, General Conference roughly votes 55%/45% in favor of the classic Christian understanding (sex is God’s good gift reserved for marriage, uniting one man and one woman). This slim majority is comprised 25% of U.S. Traditionalists and 30% of international Central Conference delegates, mostly from Africa. The African votes will grow to a clear majority within the next generation under all demographic models for the UMC. African influence has become a problem to be solved for those seeking to liberalize our denominational ministry standards.
Just two years ago, the bishops of the African Central Conferences issued a strong unified statement to the church. It communicated their “shock and dismay” as they observe our denomination drift from its call to holiness. As related to LGBT practice, they said, “We are deeply saddened that the Holy Bible, our primary authority for faith and the practice of Christian living, and our Book of Discipline are being grossly ignored by some members and leaders of our Church in favor of social and cultural practices that have no scriptural basis for acceptance in Christian worship and conduct. ”
This week, the African bishops issued another statement. This one was notable for what it didn’t say. It was printed on Council of Bishops letterhead and was very different from their 2015 epistle. It called for support of the Commission on a Way Forward. That is not noteworthy in and of itself. Noticeable is its lack of insistence that the whole church maintain biblical standards.
A central conference leader recently shared that the African bishops are under extreme pressure right now. Institutionalists hope they will use authoritarian influence to persuade the votes of their delegations. They can’t be convinced to lead their people to accept homosexual practice. But might they be convinced to allow the U.S. to set their own rules? Both the carrot and the stick for this would be financial: Threats of money drying up during a messy church split and promises of greater support in the future.** It is clear in both statements that African bishops oppose schism.
5. Bishop Ough Warns Against Jurisdictionalism.
Note the words of Council of Bishops President Bruce Ough’s fall address to the Council, entitled “In Love with Union.” He warns against the legacy of jurisdictionalism, reminding the Council of the Central Jurisdiction for African Americans. I take this to mean that he is lining up against solutions that present multiple compartments for ministry rules related to homosexuality within the U.S. church. The alternative, however, is a general loosening of the ministry rules related to human sexuality… at least across the U.S. My suspicious nature tries to connect the dots in the points above. I am on the lookout for an American Local Option packaged as a global restructure under the banner of “contextualization.”
There I go with my conspiracy theories again…
We don’t know much more about the Way Forward than we did a week ago. I choose to be optimistic because people I trust who are much closer to the process seem optimistic. The longer we go without significant details, the more crucial the time remaining becomes. I would remind you that Mondays are set aside as a particular time to pray for the Commission on a Way Forward and their sponsoring body, the Council of Bishops.
*Bishop Muyombo was recently elected at age 44 from the Congo Central Conference and is a former executive with the General Board of Global Ministries. I have heard him described as the most “Western” of the African bishops.
**My understanding is about $4 million a year currently goes to underwrite the work of African annual conferences. African bishops currently make about half of what U.S. bishops do in salary and this money comes from the General Church’s Episcopal Fund.