Saturday, March 4, 2017

Part One: On The United Methodist Church and the Bishops' Commission on a Way Forward: the Background

On Saturday March 4, 2017, Bishop Sandra Steiner-Ball of the West Virginia Area Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church addressed a group of laity and clergy at Forrest Burdette UMC in Hurricane, WV. After a service of word and sacrament led by Midland South District Superintendent Frank Shomo, Bishop Steiner-Ball shared with the gathering a progress update regarding the Council of Bishops’ COMMISSION ON A WAY FORWARD. 
This posting is a work of the Reverend Kerry Bart, pastor, First United Methodist Church, Barboursville, WV.

A few things to note: I decided to make this a two-part post. You're reading Part One, the background. There's a supplement to the background, which is the text of the original proposal, found here. And there's Part Two, the summary. Go to for that.

And without further ado:

There is one body only that speaks for The United Methodist Church, and it is the General Conference. Not the laity, not the clergy, not even the bishops, but only the General Conference. We were reminded several times by Bishop Steiner-Ball that church groups, special interest groups, and the media may each make claims like “this is what is happening in The UMC” but the most accurate (and only official) information about The UMC is published in the 2016 Book of Discipline and the 2016 Book of Resolutions. As such, it is important when hearing or writing or discussing current events and The United Methodist Church to consider the source and what has been emphasized in this paragraph.

The General Conference is the worldwide gathering of United Methodist bishops and elected clergy and laity delegates that convenes every four years to shape church polity and mission.

At General Conference in May 2016, in response to a number of proposals related to The UMC and issues of human sexuality as well as biblical interpretation and clergy integrity, the General Conference requested that the Council of Bishops form a commission to help lead our United Methodist Church forward during this time of both great crisis and great opportunity.

The bishops responded with “An Offering For A Way Forward,” (click here for the actual text) which is the subject of this document. The Offering For A Way Forward concluded with the statement, “We will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace and with one another — including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline. We will continue our conversation on this matter and report our progress to you and to the whole church.”

The bishops’ Offering For A Way Forward was approved by General Conference, and the Council of Bishops formed a Commission on a Way Forward (hereafter the Commission). The Commission has 32 members and three moderators. Commission membership includes eight bishops, eleven elders, two deacons, and eleven laity; 21 persons from the USA, seven from Africa, two from Europe, and two from the Philippines. There are eighteen men and fourteen women on the commission. Bishops Sandra Steiner-Ball, Kenneth Carter (both USA), and David Yemba (Africa) are the moderators. (Click here to read more about the Commission's membership). The Commission will meet something like nine times face-to-face in 2017 (don't quote me on that yet) in order to pray and study and discuss positions and ultimately present its labors to the General Conference.

One possible outcome of this Way Forward would be that a special General Conference be convened perhaps in 2019 for the sole purpose of presenting the Commission’s recommendation to General Conference.

I feel it is worth noting that the Council of Bishops’ Offering For A Way Forward is not associated with proposals offered by the Reverends Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter that also bore the name “A Way Forward.”

The following three paragraphs describe the Commission’s mission and vision and scope. These three paragraphs are the Commission’s, not mine.

The Commission will bring together persons deeply committed to the future(s) of The United Methodist Church, 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. We have a profound hope and confidence in the Triune God, and yet we acknowledge that we do this work in a climate of skepticism and distrust, from a human point of view. We are a connection, and we admit that our communion is strained; yet much transformative mission across our world is the fruit of our collaboration. The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition. The work is meant to inform deliberation across the whole church and to help the Council of Bishops in their service to the next General Conference in finding a way forward.

The Commission will 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. This unity will not be grounded in our conceptions of human sexuality, but in our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.

We should be open to new ways of embodying unity that move us beyond where we are in the present impasse and cycle of action and reaction around ministry and human sexuality. Therefore, we should consider new ways of being in relationship across cultures and jurisdictions, in understandings of episcopacy, in contextual definitions of autonomy for annual conferences, and in the design and purpose of the apportionment. In reflection on the tow matters of unity and human sexuality, we will fulfill our directive by considering “new forms and structures” of relationship and through the “complete examination and possible revision” or relevant paragraphs in the Book of Discipline. We will give consideration to greater freedom and flexibility to a future United Methodist Church that will redefine our present connectionality, which is showing signs of brokenness. If we ignore this work, fracturing will occur in more haphazard and even self-interested ways across the church. If we do this work only to address our preferences and self-interest, we will fail to place our complete trust in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. If we do this work with complete surrender to God’s unlimited imagination and kingdom purposes, we will be blessed beyond our limited human imagination. God remains God; God is with us; God will never let us go. To God be the glory!

(end Commission quotation) be continued in part two (click here:

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