Most people are aware of the turbulence impacting the United Methodist Church these days. The disagreement is around the question of inclusion: Should we fully include gay and lesbian people in the life of our church, specifically as it relates to marriage and ordination? Finding a way forward on this matter is the sole agenda for the rare special session of our denomination’s General Conference happening this weekend in St. Louis. This is not a new conversation. For decades, General Conference delegates from around the world have worked hard to find a faithful response. It has not been easy.
Turbulence in the church is a historical phenomenon. From Jesus and his Jewish context, through centuries of global church growth and change, up to our current moment in history, disagreements on how to live as God’s people have always been present and have often been divisive. Our denomination’s history is no exception. The Methodist movement began, in part, because reformers wanted an increasingly formal, overly intellectual and somewhat irrelevant Church of England to widen its embrace and include the common people who found themselves on the outside looking in. More recent history found us divided over the issue of slavery, challenged to live as a multi-racial body, and reluctant to trust and affirm the leadership of women. This weekend in St. Louis, our denomination’s governing body will pray and worship together, discuss, argue and debate together, and ultimately vote on a plan to move us faithfully forward as a United Methodist Church. This will not be easy for them, and I don’t believe they are the only ones with hard work to do. I believe our faithfulness in these days of uncertainty requires a serious commitment to few vital things.
First, we need to pray. I know that can be easier said than done. Sometimes we don’t know how to pray, and that’s okay. We’ll just remember what Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:26-27).
Second, we need to understand the Bible. The Biblical witness has been at the center of the church’s historic controversies, and the Bible continues to be at the center of this one. Last fall, we spent five Sunday mornings discovering that our Bible is complicated, confusing and sometimes dangerous. But we also discovered that it’s beautiful, inspiring and life-giving. It matters how we hold and interpret our sacred book.
Third, we need to continue having crucial conversations. A crucial conversation has been defined as a “discussion between two or more people, where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.” This is that kind of conversation. It not only threatens the unity of our denomination, but it impacts the lives of people we know and love. This conversation matters. We spent four Wednesday evenings listening to one another in love, seeking mutual understanding. We discovered that we are not all in the same place, and sometimes we passionately disagreed with each another. But we stayed at the table. Your display of courage and love gives me hope that we can continue our journey together as the living body of Christ.
Finally, we need to be informed and engaged. We trust the following resources will be helpful.
Videos from our Listening with Love Conversations:
Week One: Tom Berlin Sugar Packet Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_kYrIUUbvA
Week Three: Bill Everett and Wilson Strickhausen Theological conversation, Part 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enF7DY0LhY4
Week Four: Bill Everett and Wilson Strickhausen Theological conversation, Part 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGCofnAwq6s
Bishop Ken Carter explains the work of the Commission on the Way Forward at the 2018 Western North Carolina Annual Conference meeting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4UDtzh3y7s&t=714s
General Conference Information: http://www.umc.org/topics/general-conference-2019-special-session
General Conference Live Video Stream: http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/general-conference-2019-live-video-stream-english
Bishop J. Lawrence McClesky: Freedom and Connectionalism—The Wesleyan Way!
Bishop Ken Carder: Reflection and Prayer for General Conference: https://shiftingmargins.com