Saturday, March 4, 2017

Part Two: On The United Methodist Church and the Bishops' Commission on a Way Forward: progress update 3/2017

This post is part two of a long topic. The first part can be found at

This post contains a few brief notes about a progress report on the Commission, and some Q&A, as well as a resource or two.

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 document is a work of the Reverend Kerry Bart, Barboursville First United Methodist Church.

Now, my personal review of Bishop Steiner Ball’s presentation.
I found the presentation to be very thorough and even-keeled. There is a lot of background to cover (as evidenced by the preceding post's 1,000 words!) and I scribbled down a few questions while the bishop was talking. Most of the questions she answered even without me asking them.

Bishop Steiner Ball spoke about the Commission’s desire to keep the main thing the main thing, reiterating The UMC’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This is central and vital.

By my reckoning, there are three areas of focus that the Commission will have to address: 
issues of human sexuality and The UMC, 
issues surrounding biblical interpretation, 
and the clergy covenant / ecclesial disobedience.

The Commission is not about making others change their minds. 
Going back to the stated vision of the Commission (parsed by me, quoted in part 1):
the Commission will design a way for being church…
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…
grounded in… our affirmation of the Triune God
who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people 
   in the Wesleyan tradition.

For ease of access, I’m going to proceed in a Q/A fashion now. (Sorry, I’m not interested in taking the time to make it a nice online format, but) there’s a list of the questions I address, followed by the Q/A. Some of my answers are still works in progress. Please email me if you have questions about my presentation.

Q: Who is in the Commission?
Q: How are these discussions happening?
Q: What are the discussions covering?
Q: Will there be a special General Conference before GC2020?
Q: What about the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto?
Q: Is The UMC going to split?
Q: What can I do?
Q: How can I contact the Commission?

Q: Who is in the Commission? Only bishops? All of the bishops?
A: A membership roster was handed out (click here) and I provided some demographics about the roster in Part One. Out of over three hundred recommendations, 32 members were invited 
by the Council of Bishops, accounting for a range of perspectives and including clergy and laity, men and women, and global representation.

Q: How are these discussions happening?
A: The Commission, formed in October 2016 plans to have something like nine face-to-face meetings, gathering approximately every six weeks, in different locations, including at least one outside the US, and sharing many resources with each other online as well. As of March 2017, the Commission has had two meetings.

Q: What are the discussions covering?
A: The Commission will examine every passage in the Discipline relevant to human sexuality and may suggest revisions, replacements, or deletions. 

Relevant paragraphs (numbered from the Book of Discipline 2012 but identical in content in BOD2016) include 
¶341.6 and ¶2702.1 (on homosexual unions), 
¶613.19 and ¶806.9 (on funding), 
¶304.3 (on ordination), 
¶161.B (marriage), 
¶161.F (human sexuality), 
and ¶335.C.4 (ministry to all). 

In addition to the BOD and the Book of Resolutions, the Commission is considering and studying commentaries on many scripture passages, and the works of John and Charles Wesley, as well.

The Commission has spent two meetings behind closed doors in honest and heartfelt conversation, and there are many resources being read and shared. Bishop Steiner Ball indicated that members are reporting personal transformation as a result of their work and presence in the Commission, and the work and presence of the Holy Spirit.

The Commission is grounded in prayer and scripture and sacrament. They recommend group studies of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, as well the book The Anatomy of Peace (click here). The Commission is also receiving counsel and guidance from author and consultant, Rev. Gil Rendel.

Q: Will there be a special General Conference before GC2020?
A: Maybe. Perhaps in 2019. By our Discipline, a special General Conference must be announced 230 days 
before it takes place, and the agenda must have a published and limited agenda. With nine Commission gatherings and the clock ticking, there’s not a lot of time to set a special General Conference.

Related: A special GC would operate practically as a sort of extension of GC2016, that is, it would operate under the rules passed at GC2016, rules which were debated for three days at the beginning of GC2016. If rules were debated at a special GC2019 for that long, there’d be no time to attend to the matter at hand!

Q: What about the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, an openly gay woman, in the Western Jurisdiction?
A: Ultimately, that is not in the bailiwick of the Commission, but belongs instead to the Judicial Council of The UMC.

Q: Is The UMC going to split?
A: Nobody knows. The only way to answer this question with a “yes” would be after a General Conference has agreed on a split. That did not happen in 2016, and it cannot happen without a General Conference agreeing on it. This Commission will make its recommendations either to a special GC or to GC2020.

Q: What can I do?
A: Lots.
Pray for the members of the Commission (and check out There’s a schedule where every Annual Conference has a focus week of prayer for the Commission, and there are other resources as well).
Study: engage in personal and group studies of Galatians 
   and The Anatomy of Peace.
Help spread good information, 
   and help stamp out bad information.
Exercise patience.

Q: How can I contact the Commission?
A: Contact the Commission by emailing
Contact me by emailing 

And that's what I gots for now, folks. 
Feedback is appreciated and comments are welcome, 
though I may moderate comments as I see fit.

1 comment:

  1. Hey PK - If I were to speak to this commission, I think my message would be:
    As a gay man and a Christian, I shudder with a bit of horror when I hear that a church, any church, has set up a committee to study issues relating to human sexuality. I recognize the faithfulness of the members of these committees; I believe the persons involved will do their tasks to the best of their ability, genuinely seeking the wisdom as they do so.
    I shudder because, too often within the Christian tradition, we get it wrong when it comes to human sexuality. We ask the wrong the questions and we end up with the wrong answers. We drink too deeply of a tradition that distrusts the physical reality of humanity while somehow believing the spiritual self is superior to and separate from the physical self. I shudder because the Christian tradition is so deeply steeped in dualism that we cannot always see it. When we talk about human sexuality, we bring our unspoken assumptions and ideas to the table – ideas about what is right, what is moral, what is ethical, what is normal and normative – which we need to question and explore and yet rarely do.
    When we talk about church unity, we often unintentionally presume and project our image of unity without inquiring too deeply what is real unity.
    There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that Albert Einstein was once asked how he would go about solving an incredibly tough problem in one hour. He replied, “I’d spend the first 50 minutes getting the right question and the last ten minutes answering it.”
    To the members of this committee, I say, “Ask the right questions.”
    The questions, the challenges in your charter, are not the questions you should answer. Start with them, yes, but inquire into them. Your questions are important – church unity, speaking on human sexuality in meaningful ways. But what questions lie behind those challenges?
    As you discern, stop yourself periodically and ask yourself, “What questions aren’t we asking?”
    Whenever you feel stuck, ask “What questions, if we were to ask them now, would unleash God’s power among us? What questions, if we were to ask them, would lead us in a new direction?”
    Craft powerful questions – questions that require you move deeply into your faith, into Christian history and identity, into the spirit. Powerful questions can unleash our creativity and invite us to challenge our most deeply held beliefs.
    What if I’m wrong?
    What if I believe something isn’t true?
    What if this thing I believe is true but my belief leads me astray?
    What if the opposite of what I believe is true?
    What if God is at work in the world? What if God is at work in the world and I’m blind to the creator’s unfolding work?

    Don't be afraid to ask questions that, in your mind, are heresy. Ask questions that fill you with fear.
    What if the Christian church has gotten it wrong on human sexuality forever?
    What if Christian unity is different than we imagine it to be?

    Finally, I leave you with this thought – it is my belief that the great sin of humanity is the way in which we too often fail to recognize the full humanity of all persons. In your discernment and your gatherings, I therefore challenge you to begin and end with the recognition of the full humanity of all persons, those in the room with you and those around the world.