The 32 members of the Commission on a Way Forward are getting down to the business of doing what their name says — helping a denomination deeply divided over homosexuality move toward some sort of future together.
That future could end up looking very different than how The United Methodist Church operates at present.
“After meetings of building relationships and team building, the commission is now delving deeper into its intended task — finding a way forward for the church,” said Mazvita Machinga, commission member and a dean at United Methodist Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe.
“There is high optimism that a way forward will unwind itself as the team works together,” she added.
The multinational commission held its third meeting April 6-8 at the United Methodist Building in Washington. Just as was true with its first two meetings, the commission’s third gathering was closed to reporters.
The commission, authorized by General Conference 2016, is looking at new ways to be a global church where many United Methodists view the practice of homosexuality as a sin while many others view restrictions on LGBTQ individuals as sinful.
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht likens the work to putting together a puzzle. The group has laid out pieces on the table and is trying to figure out how the pieces might fit together. The challenge is the group has no set picture or diagram to go by.
“We’re acknowledging that there are deep-seated differences in the church, and there are parts of the church that are not able to live together in a closed connection,” Lambrecht said. “So we are looking at ways to loosen the connection. What form that might take, we don’t know yet.”
Matt Berryman agreed with Lambrecht’s assessment. “What we’re contemplating is loosening the connection in the face of conflict over whether there needs to be uniformity of practice and belief around LGBTQ people,” Berryman said.
Scott Johnson of Upper New York cautioned not to get too carried away with the idea of “loosening the connection.”
“I think there is no question we still see a connected United Methodist church,” he said. “We’re working toward unity.”
The group brings together clergy and laity from nine countries and of diverse perspectives. At least three members, including Berryman, are openly gay. Still others, like Lambrecht, have long advocated for maintaining the bans on same-gender unions and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.
“We are trying to think about and model the new behaviors that will help leaders who deeply care about the church to see new forms and structures that will allow for differing expressions of the global church,” Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter, told UMNS. He is one of three bishops who is moderating the commission’s work.
The group is not only looking at a way through the impasse around homosexuality but also how to increase vitality of local churches and strengthen the church’s mission.
According to a press release about the meeting, the commission members indicated they are leaning toward a simpler structure “with clearer processes for decision-making and accountability.”
The Rev. Tom Berlin, lead pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, said the commission still doesn’t know what “simpler” would look like.
“We just have a sense that it’s a lot more complicated than it needs to be,” he said. “That’s why you are hearing people say, ‘simpler’ and ‘looser.’”
Berlin added that in his experience, The United Methodist Church is “a denomination that likes the tension of different perspectives.”
Commission members also discussed what connects them together. They heard from Houston Area Bishop Scott Jones, chair of the denomination’s Committee on Faith and Order, who specifically highlighted what United Methodists share in common.
His committee has put together the document “Wonder, Love and Praise,” which explores how United Methodists understand what it means to be the Church.
Jones reminded the group of three distinctive convictions that bind United Methodists. The church believes the saving love of God is “meant for all people,” is “transformative” and “creates community.”
Alice Williams, a commission member from Florida, said Jones’ presentation really resonated with her.
“For me, moving forward as I think about this work, those will be three things that will be my touchstones,” she said.
The commission met less than a month before the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, will hold a hearing related to last summer’s election of Mountain Sky Area Bishop Karen Oliveto, the denomination’s first openly gay bishop.
Commission members stressed that whatever the Judicial Council rules, their work continues. The commission moderators plan to release a separate statement on the church court hearing.
David Field, a commission member from Switzerland, noted that the Judicial Council’s decision would use the denomination’s present Book of Discipline. In contrast, the commission is looking at the Discipline with an eye toward possible revisions.
“I remain hopeful that we will find a positive way forward that will release the church to focus the time and energy we have spent fighting each other on mission,” he said.
The commission’s next meeting will be July 17-21 in Chicago.
For any of its proposals to become reality, the commission needs the assent of General Conference delegates. Bishops are considering calling a special General Conference in 2019.