by Chris Ritter

This week, Bishop Bruce Ough, President of the Council of Bishops, issued a statement updating the church on the status of the special commission called for by the 2016 General Conference.  Here in the blogosphere, the reaction from progressives has been, for the most part, muted.  Reaction from the traditionalist side perhaps leaned toward the negative.  The reason?  The statement includes the formation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association among the list of “deep wounds and fissures” that have surfaced in the church since General Conference… right along with the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto.

I, personally, was not offended when I read Bishop Ough’s words.  It is true that those of us involved in the WCA don’t like our effort to bolster UMC accountability grouped in with an act of open defiance to our covenant.  This point probably needed to be gently challenged and now it has been.   Time to move on.   I think it is always a good idea to default to the most charitable reading of a statement by our bishops.  I am very hopeful that WCA will be a great force for good in the UMC.  I am excited about the stellar roster of names becoming associated with this nascent movement.  Those starting a new work are always subject to misunderstandings.  It goes with the territory.  The burden is upon us, over time, to demonstrate our values and vision to the wider church.

I don’t want us to reject a great gift just because the bow was perhaps tied a bit crooked.  I would take this opportunity to thank Bishop Ough and the Council of Bishops’ Executive Team for what they got right in their statement following their July 19-20 meeting.  Here are seven things I am celebrating from the statement about The Commission on a Way Forward:

First, they put forth a deliberate timeline.

Following the post-General Conference meeting of the Council of Bishops, it seemed that the process for forming the commission was going to move at a snail’s pace.  I found this frustrating as naming the commission sooner rather than later had potential to help stabilize the fragile state of things in the UMC.  The Executive Committee, however,  responded to recent events appropriately and proposed an aggressive timeline for selecting and seating the commission:  “We began by acknowledging the profound dissonance between what the Council had proposed to the General Conference in May and the reality within the church in July.”  Situational awareness is the foundation of good leadership and this move will be helpful to the cause of unity.

Second, they affirmed the need for a special General Conference

I was one who somewhat cynically predicted in May that there would be no specially-called General Conference as there are many  in our church that simply want to buy time.  I am happy to be wrong.  We must move out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves in so we can move forward in ministry.  The Executive Committee is recommending a specially called GC in early 2018.  This is a very good thing.  Bishop Ough rightly notes that only the full Council of Bishops has authority to call such a global gathering.

Third, they acknowledged the problematic election of Bishop Oliveto.

Bishop Oliveto’s election was definitely a watershed moment in the life of our church.  Our bishops are general superintendents of our church and their salaries are supported by every apportionment-paying congregation.  It was important to name this move by the Western Jurisdiction as the opening of a deep wound in our church.  While I would have preferred that the Executive Committee call for her immediate resignation, they at least named the harm and the potential for even greater harm.  If we have separate episcopates, we have separate churches.

The Executive Committee took the step of asking the Judicial Council to place a request for a declaratory decision by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference on their October docket.  The request asks our high court to rule on the status of an elected bishop who is in a same sex relationship.  My own North Central Jurisdictional Conference narrowly failed to pass a resolution similar to the one passed by the SCJ.   It was good to see the Executive Committee join in this call for a decision.

Fourth, they acknowledged this is not just about sex.

“Since when did sex become an essential of our faith?”  We hear this over and over again from the “nothing to see here” crowd that routinely minimizes breaches of covenant.  The statement by Bishop Ough names the deeper issue at stake:  “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 bishops acknowledged that we are divided by matters of great consequence.

Fifth, they chose a small commission.

The Commission on a Way Forward will be composed of 20-25 members and be moderated by three bishops:  Ken Carter from Florida, Sandra Steiner Ball from West Virginia, and David Yemba from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  A small group who honors the unity of the church has the greatest chance of making the tough decisions that will need to be made.  I would now challenge the bishops to make sure that the commission looks demographically like General Conference because whatever they propose will need to be approved there.  (Each bishop may nominate up to five people to serve on the commission.)

Sixth, they pointed toward a New Connectionalism

Those of us who have proposed structural solutions to the divisions in the UMC were heartened to see the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops acknowledge that we need to “redefine our present connectivity.”  Bishop Ough put a lot on the table as up for grabs:  “…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.”  This points to the fact that we are done with sloppy half-measures like the 2015 Connectional Table Proposal which supported a church-wide loosening of sexual standards.  (This proposal was dead on arrival at General Conference 2016.)  Ough’s statement indicates that we can now expect a new, far-reaching update of United Methodism.  If this direction holds, General Conference 2018 will be a Constitutional Convention and will invent what I have been calling “the Next Connectionalism.”

Seventh, they committed to transparency & prayer.

The Executive Committee promised an update on the progress of the commission every four to six weeks.  Daylight is not only a natural disinfectant, but it is also essential for a church where trust has been violated.  It is clear that the Executive Committee understands that failure is not an option if we hope to hold the UMC together.  Bishop Ough also shared that a “Praying Our Way Forward” initiative  will be launched by the Council of Bishops from their October meeting.  This is certainly time to humble ourselves before Almighty God for a way to be opened before us for church unity.  Launching a prayer initiative along with the commission is certainly appropriate.

There is much to like in the statement released by Bishop Ough.  Let’s commit to support our leaders as they seek to faithfully navigate the church through our most divisive season in over 170 years.  I am also excited to join my voice with those gathering in Chicago on October 7 to form the Wesleyan Covenant Association, an effort to support genuine, meaningful, unity around a rich theological understanding of the concept of covenant.  Stay tuned as new information is expected to be released soon about this nascent movement.