by Chris Ritter
General Conference 2016 deferred voting on proposed new measures passed in its legislative committees that would have reinforced our current positions on human sexuality. In return, we placed the issue into the hands of our Council of Bishops who offered to form a commission and bring back a plan for consideration. For the good of the church, I had hoped the UMC would reach some sort of comprehensive settlement in Portland, and I worked toward that end. Alas, this was not the case. I choose to remain positive and hopeful about this new path that has opened before us.
It is the eleventh hour for United Methodism. The bishops have been given a unique opportunity. There are those who would be content to use the referral as an opportunity for a four-year delay without significant action. This would be a grave error. Here are seven unsolicited points of advice for our Council of Bishops as they take the weighty baton that has been handed to them:
First, create a commission that looks like our church. Remember that whatever is ultimately proposed will need to come before General Conference for approval. Why not help the church by creating a commission that reflects the makeup of our global church? We should learn from the errors of the past. My colleague Randy Robinson has noted that Blue Ribbon Commissions sponsored by the Council of Bishops or populated exclusively by the Council of Bishops have a recent record of rejection by General Conference: The Call to Action (2012), The Restructuring Plan (2000), and the Council of Bishops’ Study of the Ministry (1996). We cannot afford a failure this time around. Having a commission that reflects the demographics of General Conference will contribute to its ultimate success.
Second, understand your mandate. Lead, but don’t overreach. You have been handed a great responsibility by the church, by a 3% margin vote. You have not been granted special emergency powers. The Book of Discipline remains in effect as the only ecclesial law governing us. It is not within your authority to change or nullify the covenant that defines our connection. You each have vowed to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church against all that is contrary to God’s Word.
Third, create a transparent process. The whole church needs to take the journey with you across the coming months. Let us know the basis on which members of the commission are chosen. Once it is in session, keep us updated. There is a time and place for private meetings where ideas can be floated without consequence. Once the list of possibilities is narrowed, however, people need time to confer with one another about these and provide feedback. A transparent process will yield a better final result. If we arrive at the next General Conference only to reject the plan, we will find ourselves in a very difficult place.
Fourth, treat the global restructure separately. You may be tempted to recommend solving our divisions over human sexuality by segregating the African church under their own rules. This would be a mistake. I realize that a global restructure is already in the works. I further realize the Moderates and Progressives would much rather deal with an all-American body to debate homosexuality. We are, however, a global church and we need each other. It seems obvious to me that we will not be able to reach super-majority agreement on the global structure until after we reach a settlement on the topics of scripture and sexuality.
Fifth, call that special session. I previously predicted that no special session of General Conference will be called. The idea of the commission seems to some as an effort to buy time and allow the U.S. culture to further adapt to a new sexual ethic. Four years is better than two for those wanting to delay. I hope you prove me wrong. We need something like a constitutional convention to help us work through our issues. Please do not miss that the church is in great peril during this interim period. The peace is fragile. The longer we wait the greater the likelihood that someone will do something, either on the left or the right, that makes staying together in the church even more difficult.
Sixth, use your influence to encourage restraint. This should begin by calling upon progressive jurisdictions, for the sake of unity, to forgo electing a gay bishop at their conferences this July. Bishops, while elected and held accountable jurisdictionally, are paid through the Episcopal Fund. If general church funds are used to pay a bishop whose lifestyle is deemed “incompatible with Christian teaching”, this will move us right into the next crisis. At the very least it will mean that some will withhold apportionments. Another point of restraint would be calling on boards of ordained ministry to abide by the rules that govern their work. The four BOM’s that have already voted to ignore the Discipline need to be lovingly corrected. If it is wrong for the state of Israel to continue to build new settlements in Palestinian territory during a struggling peace process, surely it is also wrong for progressives to attempt to expand the breach of covenant that has already happened while we are discerning a way to live together in peace. Conservatives should only file complaints in those cases of overt, public and willful disobedience to our rules: “If you don’t make the newspaper, we will not file the complaint.” Let’s all cool our heels so the commission can do their work.
Seventh, use your individual voices to lead. We know you are seriously divided as a council and I appreciate you naming this at General Conference 2016. You trying to speak only with one voice has not served the church well. The united statements of the council have been somewhat nebulous. In times where there is no consensus, honest and open communication is called for on the part of individual members. Our Articles of Religion actually provide a non-judicial means of addressing breaches of our Discipline:
Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely doth openly break the rites and ceremonies of the church to which he belongs, which are not repugnant to the Word of God, and are ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, that others may fear to do the like, as one that offendeth against the common order of the church…” (XXII of the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church.
A public rebuke is established in our Doctrinal Standards as a time-tested way to maintain order in the church. When someone publicly breaks their vows, this should be met by a open, loving, and direct rebuke, in addition to whatever private processes may take place. Although the Council of Bishops cannot currently* hold a member of their own judicially accountable for their actions, you can censure them either individually or collectively. This responsibility named in our doctrinal standards is placed upon all of us, but would especially apply to our bishops. Silence is consent. While open rebukes might seem to run counter to calls for peace and restraint, we desperately need voices of clarity and conviction in this season of our life together.
A final additional hope is that the “Jurisdictional Solution” will become a topic of discussion in the commission. Attending General Conference 2016 reinforced my belief that some sort of structural solution is the only way for us to retain some semblance of unity amidst our diversity. We should not be afraid of compartmentalizing under the same tent or connecting ourselves under different tents for the sake of mission and ministry.
Bishops, please know that the church is praying for you as you take up the daunting task given to you by General Conference. I have joined a movement started by Jessica LaGrone to pray particularly for the UMC each Monday until the next General Conference. The effort is called PrayUMC and has been favorably received by folks from across the ideological spectrum of our church. We are asking that the Holy Spirit guide and bless your important work.
*General Conference did approve a means by which the Council of Bishops can hold one another officially accountable, but this needs to be ratified by the several annual conferences as it is a constitutional matter.