Way Forward update

United Methodist Bishops Laurie Haller (right) and Harald Rückert serve Holy Communion during worship at Canaan United Methodist Church in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. Members of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters worshipped at the church during a break from their meeting in Abidjan. ~umns photo Mike DuBose

Members of four international church leadership bodies offer thoughts about possible church futures.
HEATHER HAHN
United Methodist News Service

An international group of United Methodist leaders heard more details on three possible models for how the church ministers with LGBTQ individuals.

Three participants in the Commission on a Way Forward presented an update on their work to four denominational leadership bodies holding a joint meeting in this western African country.

Together, the four groups have members who span the denomination’s global membership and theological spectrum. Many came from central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

The update marked the commission’s first public presentation to a multinational group that includes a number of delegates to the 2019 special General Conference — the lawmaking assembly that has final say on what direction the denomination takes.

The roughly 75 church leaders heard from retired Bishop David Yemba, one of three bishops serving as commission moderators, as well as commission members retired Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany and Hortense Aka of Côte d’Ivoire.

“Pray, pray and again pray,” Aka exhorted the church leaders in French. “This is very important for the commission.”

The 2016 General Conference authorized the Council of Bishops to form the commission after decades of intensifying debate around inclusion of LGBTQ individuals. The commission has the task of advising the bishops on possible ways through the impasse. In turn, the bishops will use that advice in determining what it submits to the special General Conference.

Fred Brewington speaks during a meeting of the United Methodist Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. At rear is the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai. ~umns photo/Mike DuBose

Right now, there are three very different possible church futures on the table.

Wenner provided an overview of those three frameworks with a bit more detail than offered previously. The commission has named the three options.

The Traditionalist Model

This possibility would affirm current church restrictions related to LGBTQ individuals and aim to add more accountability for enforcement of those restrictions.

The Book of Discipline, the church’s policy book, says the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching” and lists officiating at a same-gender union or being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member as chargeable offenses under church law.

“Accountability is the big headline on this model,” Wenner said. “And those who say this is not for us, as a group of people, as a conference, as a local church or whoever, would be asked to leave the connection.”

The Centrist Model

This possibility would remove the Book of Discipline’s restrictive language and allow more freedom for United Methodists to set policies around LGBTQ inclusion, according to their own contexts.

Conferences individually could choose whether to ordain openly gay clergy, and local congregations could decide whether to allow same-gender weddings, Wenner said.

The model also would specifically protect the rights of United Methodists whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ people.

“We think no one has to make any decision at all,” she said. “They can just continue their journey as they are now.”

The Multi-branch Model

This possibility would create multiple branches of the denomination “operating under one roof,” Wenner said.

The branches would share one General Conference, which would have responsibility for overseeing shared services such as certain general agency functions. Under the denominational roof, there could be a branch that wants to maintain the current Book of Discipline’s language, a branch that favors a more local approach and a branch that wants full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in all parts of their fellowship.

Wenner added that central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines — could be their own branches under this plan.

All three models would come with a way for churches to exit the denomination. Wenner acknowledged that no single option would please everyone.

Parishioners pray during worship at Canaan United Methodist Church in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. ~umns photo/Mike DuBose

The Rev. Amy Lippoldt of the Great Plains Conference asked the presenters if the bishops planned to narrow down the number of plans or submit all three potential models for General Conference to hash out.

“General Conference is at an impasse, which is why we asked for this whole process,” she added. “I am concerned about three models continuing and keeping us at that impasse.”

Yemba, the commission moderator, basically told her it was too soon to tell what the Council of Bishops would do. Earlier, he said the bishops do not plan to issue a report on their recommendations until May.

“I can tell you the commission did not present a preference among the models,” said Yemba, who lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “It is not the commission who decides.”

A number of people at the meeting from Africa and the Philippines shared Lippoldt’s worry about what might happen if all three plans head to General Conference. Whatever the body receives, the delegates will have a chance to refine.

The meeting brought together members of the General Conference’s Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, the Ministry Study Commission, the Committee on Faith and Order, and the Connectional Table.

Bishop Muyondo Mande (right) prays during worship at Canaan United Methodist Church in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. He is joined by Bishops (from left) Harald Rückert, Gregory Palmer and Patrick Streiff. Members of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters worshipped at the church during a break from their meeting in Abidjan. ~umns/photo/Mike DuBose

While many wanted the bishops to pick one plan, they differed on which one.

Betty Katiyo of the West Zimbabwe Conference said she personally would prefer that the church would simply vote on whether it accepts same-sex practice or not.

“We cannot say we are global and let one branch do what it wants,” she said. “At the end of the day, people view The United Methodist Church as one church.”

Napoleon Adamu of Nigeria told UMNS he worried that changing church policies would weaken the denomination’s presence in his home country, which has outlawed the practice of homosexuality.

“Another denomination tried doing that, and they were criticized from various angles,” he said.

Jorge Lockward, an openly gay member of the New York Conference, had a different take.

“I have this question in mind: Which of the proposals helps us best — all of us — in the journey forward,” he said. He saw the second or third plans as allowing church members to stay together even as their understandings change.

Members of the United Methodist Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters gather for Communion at Canaan United Methodist Church in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Consecrating the elements is Bishop Benjamin Boni (center). ~umns photo/Mike DuBose

The Rev. Jay Williams is the senior pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, a large, multiethnic church with many openly gay members. He is also a member of the Queer Clergy Caucus, an unofficial advocacy group in the denomination. He laments that he is “seen as a problem.”

“Instead of being celebrated as created in God’s image, LGBTQ people are batted around as an ‘issue’ that threatens to disunify The United Methodist Church,” he said.

“But the Spirit is alive. And the Word of God — Jesus Christ — sets us all free to live abundantly and authentically. I dream of a church that truly embraces liberation, unconditional love and justice for all.”

Katiyo said she regretted that the debate had absorbed so much of the denomination’s energy and threatened to divide its international fellowship and ministry.

“Either way you go, you’re going to lose someone,” she said. “The question is: Are you willing to live with the decision you make?”

However, the Rev. Michael Nausner, a United Methodist from Germany now working in Sweden, sees hope in the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward itself. Like the denomination they serve, the United Methodists on the commission bring together varied nationalities and views. Three commission members are openly gay.

“I have only heard a powerful witness of covenanting and hopefulness from the commission,” he said. “Maybe they can be a model.”

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