You are going to see a lot this month in the Articles section on the upcoming Called General Conference. As you may already know, the world-wide United Methodist Church meets every 4 years – in Methodist-speak that is every quadrinnieum – to fellowship, worship, celebrate, plan and pass legislation for our denomination. We are schedule for our regular General Conference in 2020. The called conference will be in February 2019.
The reason for this special conference is to discuss and vote on one set of issues: sexual orientation. (This has nothing to do with transgender individuals.) People differ on what is most important about these issues, and what is at stake for the church as a whole. Some have stated that they must have a specific outcome or they cannot remain in the denomination. According to polls taken at annual conferences this year, a majority are seeking a resolution that will allow us to remain together, and find a way forward together. The outcome will impact each local church and conference in one way or another. The decision will also impact all of our global ministries like UMCOR, and the hundreds of other ministries supported through The Advance.
What I learned from talking about these issues with my Bible study class is that studying scripture and applying our reason, tradition and experience to the texts was not especially helpful. I had hoped that it would aid everyone in understanding where they stand and why, as well as where someone of a different opinion stands and why. We examined scripture that addresses who can marry whom, divorce in Hebrew scripture and the Gospels, circumcision, purity laws, definitions of sin, and even killing as ways to talk about what we think scripture says or doesn’t say, and whether or not we are still following or moving away from what scripture meant at the time it was written and what it means applied to us now.
I am not sure that there were any major breakthroughs. Our experience was pretty consist with what others have shared with me from other churches. So, how do we decide what to do? It doesn’t seem to be based on the answers to questions like these:
Is having a particular understanding of scripture that condemns this particular sin (sexual orientation) at the heart of what it means to be a united, holy and apostolic church?
Should scientific and psychological understandings of different sexual orientations as normal variations from birth be accepted or rejected?
Is anything other than heterosexuality either a disease or a choice; both of which can and should be cured or changed, respectively?
So perhaps what we should ask is what is really most important about the decision we make? Our decisions will define who we are as a church and what it means to be a disciple as well as who can make disciples.
Maybe we need to change the questions, and ask what is at stake? Obviously, the future of the UMC is at stake; but what does that mean? Asking what is at stake as the church as the body of Christ (rather than the institution) really gets to the heart of the matter. I know this is very simplistic, but here is what it boils down to for me:
Is being open to all sinners what it means to be a united, holy and apostolic church? Or, is being united, holy and apostolic based on specific definitions of what is immoral such as homosexuality which has been stated as incompatible with Christian doctrine?
What decision is a better witness to the good news, the gospel, of Jesus Christ?
What impact will our decision make upon our ability to fulfill our mission as the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?
I will be participating in training to prepare for discussions with you, and we will be picking dates and times to have these important dialogues.
In the meantime, please read the materials provided here, and view the videos and other information provided so that you will have the best understanding you can of where we are and how we have been striving to find a way forward. Otherwise simply pray for God’s will to be done, and do not worry. Not worrying is a very Biblical teaching no matter your opinion on this issue. And remember, too, that the church is almost always in crisis of one kind or another; always under threat from one direction or the other; and that we struggle with each other and the Bible all the time if we are truly striving to be witnesses to the Gospel and imitators of Jesus. He did argue quite a bit with people he cared about, didn’t he?
I pray that we will all listen, really listen, to each other; and courageously and humbly take the next steps after we hear and are fully heard, whatever those steps turn out to be. Maybe this is the most important thing no matter what the decision.