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A Way Forward: general directions from the most recent meetings of the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops

A Way Forward: general directions from the most recent meetings of the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops

Denominational News Way Forward

Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Florida Annual Conference:

Over the past two years, I have engaged in dialogue with almost two thousand Florida United Methodist leaders in seven different settings about questions that are of great interest and concern to all of us.  We will offer four of these opportunities next fall. 

These gatherings are first shaped around questions submitted via email ahead of time or at the door as people enter.  The topics, in order of interest, are 1) human sexuality 2) vitality and closure of churches and 3) the complexity of the ordained ministry process.  On another occasion, I will reflect on the second and third topics.  Here I want to reflect with you on the first one.

I often find that people ask me questions along the way about these topics, or have assumptions about them:

  • Will we divide over the questions of human sexuality?
  • Am I hopeful about the future of the church?
  • Are we changing the way we interpret the scriptures?
  • Is there a way to end discrimination against persons of LGBTQ identity in our churches?

In Florida we have approached the conversation about LGBTQ identity and the unity of the church in these dialogues, in district gatherings led more recently by Alex Shanks, and in a process designed by a group of conference leaders (lay and clergy) in collaboration with the design group We Are CurioAs one of the moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward, I encourage you to access the resources on the Commission Facebook Page, and in the Bishop’s Corner of this website.  I also give thanks here for the participation of Jorge Acevedo of Cape Coral and Alice Williams of Orlando on the Commission, and Alex Shanks, who is project manager for the work of the Commission.

The most recent meeting of the Council of Bishops (November 5-10) received the Commission’s Interim Report, which is described here. In summary, sketches of three models or general directions were offered:

  • A model that maintains the present language in the Book of Discipline around human sexuality and assumes a higher degree of accountability across the church. 
  • A model that removes restrictive language from the Book of Discipline around human sexuality and allows for greater local contextualization around the world in matters of marriage and ordination, and offers protections for those whose conscience will not allow them to participate in same gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
  • A model that creates a connection or communion of branches of The United Methodist Church, but with shared commitments to mission and doctrine and shared services.

Each of the models represents values that are across the church and within the Council of Bishops.  Each includes a gracious way for those who feel called to exit the denomination, although this is not the hope or intention. In the third model there would be alignment with a branch of the larger connection or communion. It would also be likely that these branches would be in full communion with each other.  And it is also possible that a new model or general direction might emerge.

These models are presented as sketches.  I encourage you to watch this brief video by Bishop Robert Schnase, who is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward, about how this mental model can be helpful as we move forward.

This is an open conversation. The Commission on a Way Forward did not suggest a preference to the Council of Bishops, and the Council of Bishops is not now expressing a preference for the whole church. This is to facilitate an open conversation, led by bishops in their episcopal areas, that honors the desires and convictions of United Methodists who worship, study, serve and witness in their local communities. These questions are important to me:

  • What are the most important values and convictions for you, as a United Methodist, as we seek a way forward?
  • What resources help you to tell the story of a church that is in unity with Christ and one another?
  • What are the core convictions of your faith?
  • Based on brief descriptions or sketches of possible futures for our denomination, how would you build or design a structure that would help us to move forward?
  • And how would this sketch multiply our Wesleyan witness and expand our mission in the world?

As the way forward unfolds, we will be guided by the values of unity, contextuality and mission. We want to deepen our unity as Christ-centered disciples; we want to allow for greater contextuality in a diverse and global church, and we want to multiply the mission of Jesus Christ in as many places as possible.  The models sketched thus far help us to envision a church that can be the vessel for these deeper values. 

For more details about the substance of the models, I encourage you to read the recent summary of the Council of Bishops meeting here, and I also refer you to the Mission, Vision and Scope of the Commission on a Way Forward (here) and the Interim Status Report released in July 2017 (here).

For an informal conversation about the ongoing work of the Commission on a Way Forward, I invite you to watch a brief video that was filmed with me, Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball of West Virginia and Bishop David Yemba of the Congo.

The Commission on a Way Forward will meet in January, March and May 2018. The Council of Bishops will meet in February and in May 2018. The report of the Bishops will be adopted at this May 2018 meeting and shared with the church in the summer of 2018. Significant time will be given to this work at the Florida Annual Conference in June 2018. A special called General Conference to hear the report of the Commission on a Way Forward will take place in February 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. 

In closing I return to the questions, which are important ones, and my brief responses, for the purpose of being in conversation with you.

  • Will we divide over the questions of human sexuality?

I do not think we will divide over questions of human sexuality. I am hopeful, not because of our own efforts or merits, but because the church belongs to God, and is One Body (1 Corinthians 12-14). I go into more detail about this conviction here.

  • Am I hopeful about the future of the church?

I am hopeful about the future of the church. Some of our greatest challenges have to do with how we can learn the art and practice of discipling new, younger and more diverse people to follow Jesus, and how we can move toward and not retreat from the great human suffering that is around us and at times within us.  The best of all is that God promises to be with us, through it all, in the presence of the Risen Christ (Matthew 28).

  • Are we changing the way we interpret the scriptures?

We interpret the scriptures by reading individual passages in relation to the whole; for example, the Book of Leviticus in relation to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  As a spiritual practice this involves deeper study, listening to the saints of the church, using our minds and allowing the experience of the living Christ to make us a new creation (2 Corinthians 5).

  • Is there a way to end discrimination against persons of LGBTQ identity in our churches?

I yearn for a church where discrimination of the LGBTQ community ceases. These are persons of sacred worth. They are not out there; they are in our churches – serving, singing, giving, praying, studying, and living among us. We want to remove any obstacle that prevents anyone from knowing Christ and becoming part of His Body.

Can we do this work prayerfully, patiently and respectfully?  And can we see a way of being church that includes us all—those more traditional and those more progressive, and everyone in between? 

This is my hope and prayer.  This is my calling to lead among you. For we are all works in progress, on a path to lives that glorify God, who created us in his image (Genesis 1).  What is true for you and me is also true for the United Methodist Church: 

The God who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it” (Philippians 1. 6).

Bishop +Ken Carter
Florida Conference
The United Methodist Church

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