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Why I’m hopeful…
This week the Council of Bishops met and issued a public statement that aspired to be pastoral and prophetic. Thank you for your prayers as we met. Here are some of the reasons I am hopeful after the meeting.
The bishops are keenly aware that United Methodism is in crisis. The backlash in Europe, parts of the United States and other places around the world to the recent General Conference, makes a unified future for the UMC appear impossible. Some people hold out hope for a change at the 2020 General Conference. Others anticipate schism. No-one seems to believe that United Methodists around the world will simply implement policies that exclude and punish LGBTQ+ people.
The bishops kept the main thing the main thing. Placing the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, at its center, we devoted 11 hours over 4 days focused on the deep fractures in our Church. We felt deeply the despair of LGBTQ+ persons, their families, and of a new generation of leaders in the United States. We also awoke to the increased risk to poor and vulnerable people caused by funds being withheld or re-directed from apportionments, The Advance, Africa University and other United Methodist causes.
The bishops recognize that this crisis offers a rare opportunity. United Methodism is overdue for a spiritual and practical revival to address systemic racism, sexism, colonialism, heteronormativity, irrelevance to young people, and a governance system that is not designed or capable of addressing our global complexity. How can the Church use this crisis to help God give rise to a new movement of Methodism? Don’t waste a good crisis!
The bishops see that division keeps us distracted from mission. We’ve had split decisions on sexuality for 45 years as a denomination. In February we took our best shot at adopting legislation that could hold us together and failed. Our established legislative and judicial processes are not able to heal the breach. United Methodist spiritual practices and resources are weak. We find ourselves adrift in turbulent waters.
The bishops began to tell the truth: maybe not the whole truth, but a lot of new truth. We spoke more frankly about our ministry contexts and the conflicting demands within our areas. We challenged each other honestly about ways our leadership may contribute to division and distrust. Some challenged participation by bishops in caucuses and reform groups on both sides of the divide. Some reported conservatives being blamed for the actions of the General Conference. I recalled that the Western Jurisdiction has been fully inclusive since before the Church prohibited ordination of LGBTQ+ people and blessing of their relationships.
The bishops acknowledged that worldly powers and principalities are at work, intending to divide the Church and silence its prophetic voice.
Leaders of the Reform and Renewal Coalition, after a
closed-door meeting. Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS.
In some places, bishops report that disruption in their areas was amplified by outside groups spreading accusations of influence peddling, delegate voter fraud and defamatory rumors about individuals and regions of the Church. We asked ourselves, are we just too nice to investigate and expose these actions? Should bishops identify ourselves with these groups? Should there be a standard of disclosure and transparency for any group that wants to be considered a trustworthy partner? You may have seen the photo of bishops meeting with the Reform and Renewal Coalition comprised of Good News, the Confessing Movement, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), during the Council meeting. Bishops who were not there asked the other, “Why did you go to the meeting?” Bishops who attended raised strong objections to unethical and dishonest tactics of some affiliated with the coalition.
African American bishops testified to their survival in an unjust system. In a wrenching witness, African American bishops described decades of racial segregation within the Church in the United States and the faithfulness of African Americans who stayed and supported the Church, despite being marginalized. The church has never healed those wounds, and that black voices are still not heard in the Church today. Some resent the outcry in support of LGBTQ+ people, when there has never been acknowledgement and advocacy for full racial inclusion. Through their pain, these colleagues offered another oppressed group encouragement to survive in structures that deny your humanity. I heard them saying – don’t leave. You can stay, despite the pain inflicted on you, because God loves you and makes you strong. The Church needs you to be whole.
The bishops began to see that human sexuality cannot be considered as an either/or proposition to be settled by an up or down vote. If there is one new thing I am learning from the LGBTQ+ community, it is that binary options are not adequate. Either/or choices don’t take account of how fearfully and wonderfully God has made us. Making sense of LGBTQ+ requires and deserves deep conversation, biblical scholarship, ethical consideration and prayer-filled spiritual maturity. It requires the wisdom of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. People are not simply male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, biblical literalists or biblical critical thinkers, rule -follower or people-lover. Binary choices cannot reveal the whole truth, because you have to ignore part of the truth to answer a complex question with a simple answer.
In the midst of the messiness of the struggle I find hopeful signs that the Church is alive, and at work, humble, and learning. The Council of Bishops did not propose a top-down 5-year plan. It’s not time to have a plan yet. Most of us are so rooted within our side of the divided question, we don’t know how complicated the questions are for someone stuck on the other side. We have to keep listening, and searching for the whole truth that has room for each of our particular truths.
Later this month I’ll travel to Minneapolis to participate in the UM Forward Conference, inviting voices of Young, Queer and people of Color to speak at the center of the conversation. From there I will travel to Church of the Resurrection near Kansas City, where some 600 people will gather at the invitation of Pastor Adam Hamilton, to pray and think together about the future of the Church. I hope there will be lots of listening and truth-sharing in both groups. I’ll check in with you after I return, as we prepare for Annual Conferences.
In the meantime, by every prayer, every step, every sermon, every Bible study, every act of generosity, we are crossing over, and making the road by walking.
Elaine JW Stanovsky | Greater Northwest Area