Friday, November 4, 2016

Further Thoughts on A Way Forward for the UMC

So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these people and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
Acts 5:38-39

In an article published in the online journal um-insght, Diane Degnan reports that the Council of Bishops, meeting in St. Simons Island, Georgia, “expressed their intent to call for a special session of the General Conference in either February or March of 2019 and asked the business manager of the General Conference to move forward with exploring venues and a bid search.”

In a related action, the co-chairs of the “Praying Our Way Forward” initiative, asked the whole church to pray for the Commission on a Way Forward.

 “We want the church and the Commission on a Way Forward to be led by God. This prayer emphasis puts us in a posture where as a church we are asking and listening for God’s leadership,” said Bishop Wallace-Padgett. “Our prayer focus is twofold: We are praying that God will help us to more effectively fulfill the mission of the church.  And we are praying to be one in Christ.”

“To be one in Christ,” is a spiritual way of talking about the unity of the church, Some fear that such unity will only come at the expense of LGBTQ persons. Some of those same people, and others, suspect that a call for unity is really about the preservation of money, property and power.

I will not be praying that we will be “one in Christ.” That is not who we have been in the past, and I do not expect we will achieve that anytime soon. Like John Wesley’s notion that we are “going on to perfection,” it is more about hope than reality. It is not a place we will get to in this lifetime.

But I will be hoping and praying for unity. And by unity I mean connectional unity. I do not expect that we will be of one mind, but I am hoping we can continue to be one church.

And beyond that, though I know that we will not all think alike, I share Wesley’s hope that we may all love alike.

A year ago I did not believe that we would come this close to schism because I fully expected the runaway train of LGBTQ awareness, acceptance and affirmation would move faster than our lumbering bureaucracy. 

I imagined one of our study committees, meeting in a windowless room,  plodding toward some vague compromise only to be interrupted by a messenger who arrived to tell them that in the outside world this had already been settled, that there was no longer anyone out there who cared about anyone else’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sadly, that did not happen. At least it has not yet happened. But I am still in favor of unity.

To be clear, I do not believe in “unity” as a euphemism for continuing to oppress and exclude our LGBTQIA members, friends, children, siblings, or neighbors. We need to stop the harm.

And I would not be in favor of unity if I did not believe that we are moving inexorably and irreversibly toward full inclusion. I may have underestimated the speed of the change, but I am convinced that we will continue to move toward a more inclusive society and a more inclusive church.

The cynical view has been that the bishops and others in leadership would hold the church together in order to avoid the inevitable conflicts over the division of assets (property, buildings, investments, pensions). I would not minimize the potential conflicts, but that is not what really concerns me. We can do the math and we can figure out a formula. It will be messy and difficult, but it will get done.

My greater concern is when it comes to individual United Methodists in individual local churches.

What do you do if you believe in inclusion and your congregation votes to go with the traditionalists? Of course, you can find another church, but that will not take away the hurt. Or vice versa? What if you are an LGBTQ person and your church votes to go with the traditionalists? If the vote is 90 to 10, the pain may not be that great, but what about the churches that find themselves divided 55-45, or even 65-35?

And how will this look to the rest of the world?

Our mistreatment of LGBTQIA persons has caused pain and even death. And that mistreatment has also compromised our ability to proclaim the Gospel. We have lost credibility in the world. When people see how wrong we are on this issue they wonder if we can ever get anything right.

Our literal and legalistic (and profoundly mistaken) interpretation of a few obscure passages of scripture has caused folks outside the church to discard the whole Gospel. 

Both traditionalists and progressives should be appalled by that.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.


  1. Bill, thank you for these words. I have found it helpful to make a distinction between unity, which is a gift of grace, and uniformity, which is our poor imitation of unity. Increasingly in the UMC, we seem to be divided because some of us seek the unity found in love and grace, while others seek to impose uniformity on all by whatever means necessary.

    On a personal note, a dear friend, fellow annual conference member, and brother in Christ left the UMC when he could no longer hide his true self from the church and the world. He is now pastor at Edgewood Congregational UCC, which I guess must be pretty close to you, given the size of Rhode Island (I live in Texas). He's a good guy fighting the good fight. If you ever cross paths with him, I'm sure you will find a kindred spirit.

  2. It grieves me greatly as I am a UMC member in the same Church since 1942. If we wait until 2019 for the next General Conference the hemorrhage will be to a point of no possible healing. May God change hearts and bring Christ's unfailing Love back to the Church...Shalom, Al Woj grandfather