The United Methodist group, charged with bridging divisions around homosexuality, spent its first meeting recently mainly getting to know and trust each other, but also took first steps toward possible outcomes, according to Heather Hahn of UMNS (United Methodist News Service).
The ‘Commission on a Way Forward’, which includes 32 United Methodists from nine countries, comprises six working groups that will attempt to bridge church divisions, including LGBT issues, from multiple directions.
Matt Berryman, fellow commission member, said he was hopeful.
“There is universal agreement, pretty much, that we are not there to talk about whether LGBTQ people will be included but how”
said Berryman, the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network. His organization advocates for LGBTQ individuals to be included in all aspects of church life.
A bishop said the topic is difficult, but he drew encouragement from the spirit of the meeting.
“I think there is clear willingness of each member to participate and so far there is active participation of each member and this is encouraging,” Central Congo Area Bishop David Yemba said in a commission press release.
Yemba is one of three bishops serving as commission moderators. He and the other two moderators — Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, and Bishop Ken Carter — do not have a vote on the commission’s work.
The commission’s first meeting on Jan 23-26 in Atlanta was open only to the commission members, the three bishops serving as moderators, and a few specially invited guests.
However, the advocacy group Love Prevails protested not being allowed into the meeting. Their website states:
“Love Prevails went to Atlanta to observe the first face-to-face meeting of The Commission on (Not) A Way Forward. When we arrived, we were told that the Commission meeting was a closed meeting. In addition, we were informed that we were not allowed to even be in the building. Not even to go to the bathroom”.
“[..] United Methodists were denied entrance into a building paid for by United Methodist apportionment dollars”.
“Pursuant to The United Methodist Book of Discipline, Love Prevails questioned the legality of The Commission being closed. Love Prevails sees this Commission as authorized by General Conference and thus required to be open”.
No reporters were present, although United Methodist News Service had asked to attend.
During the meeting, commission members developed a covenant for their work together. This included what members would not share in public.
“Through the development of the covenant, we were able to enter into deeper conversations with each other,” Carter said.
Carter said the commission members chose the groups on which they serve.
The commission’s working groups will focus on the following topics:
- Learning about the experiences of other denominations
- Looking at the strategy for effective use of a 2019 special General Conference
- Understanding the experiences of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning) individuals
- Understanding the current denominational situation
- Understanding what central conferences (church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe) want from a new form of denominational connection
- Understanding the power dynamics inherent in the construction of the commission itself
Previous United Methodist groups tasked with reviewing church teachings on homosexuality mainly explored theology and Scripture, Berryman said. This commission is looking at building relationships across cultures and determining how to live with each other amid theological diversity.
General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, authorized the formation of the commission in the wake of intensifying church debate about the status of LGBTQ individuals.
General Conference called on the commission to examine and possibly recommend changes to the denomination’s Book of Discipline, which since 1972 has stated
“the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”.
The bishops’ executive committee also has decided that the group will explore new ways of being a global church.
“Everybody knows that something has to change, and we’ve begun a conversation about what that might look like,” Berryman said. “We are in a very, very preliminary phase.”
Carter said the spirit of the first meeting “was hopeful.”
“Several commented on the extraordinary diversity of those gathered,” Carter said.
Eight more meetings are tentatively scheduled through early 2018. The next meeting will be Feb. 27-March 2 also in Atlanta.
Any proposed changes to the Book of Discipline will need approval at General Conference. The Council of Bishops is considering calling a special General Conference in 2019.