In the past week, Butler District Superintendent Eric Park wrote the following letter to clergy and leaders in the Butler District offering his thoughts on a report from the Commission on a Way Forward. Since then, on Aug. 1, the official translations of the Commission on a Way Forward's report to the General Conference were released. The English version can be found here.
Grace and peace to you as you continue to communicate the love of Jesus to a world that desperately needs it.
It is an important time in the life of our denomination. Our conversations about human sexuality, while they have long been intense, seem to have entered an even deeper spirit of urgency as the 2019 special session of General Conference draws nearer. Not a day goes by that I do not have either e-mail or face-to-face conversation with someone on the Butler District about current developments in United Methodism related to a possible way forward toward a place beyond our current conflicts over sexual ethics.
I hope that you are keeping yourself well informed about all that is happening within our denomination so that you might lead in a manner that is informed and helpful.
In case you missed recent news, the first public details of the proposed legislation that will come before February’s special session of General Conference are now available to us via the Judicial Council’s October 2018 docket. Here is a link to an article from the United Methodist News Service which explains the details of the legislation and its implications: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/court-docket-details-proposed-plans-for-umc
Here is my best effort at a quick explanation of what the article details:
The 32-member Commission on a Way Forward, which has been meeting regularly and deliberating since January of 2017, is putting forth three different plans or options for the resolution of the denomination’s current debate over human sexuality. Here is a brief description of each plan:
The One Church Plan—In this plan, recommended by the Council of Bishops, individual pastors would be entrusted with the decision about whether or not to officiate at same-sex weddings; individual congregations would be entrusted with the decision about whether or not same-sex weddings could be held on church property; and individual annual conferences would be entrusted with the decision about whether or not to ordain people who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. This plan would remove the restrictive language against the practice of homosexuality in the Book of Discipline so that it would no longer be a chargeable offense. The One Church Plan seeks to create adequate space for a divergence of perspectives (both conservative and progressive) and to honor United Methodists who believe that the current impasse over human sexuality does not necessitate a denominational split.
The Traditional Plan—This plan maintains the current Disciplinary language related to the practice of homosexuality and clarifies accountability standards in an effort to encourage both a more widespread adherence to Disciplinary proscriptions and a quicker resolution of complaints. The Traditionalist Plan seeks to preserve the denomination’s established teaching and to honor those United Methodists who believe that changing the denomination’s current position would be an unacceptable departure from a necessary orthodoxy.
The Connectional Conference Plan—This plan replaces the five U.S. geographical jurisdictions with three “connectional conferences,” which are defined, not by geographical boundaries, but by ideological and theological convictions related to human sexuality. Jurisdictions, Annual Conferences, and Local Churches would have the opportunity to join the Connectional Conference with which they are in theological alignment. The Connectional Conferences would each have a College of Bishops and a contextualized Book of Discipline.
Within the laity and clergy of the Butler District, we have a wide diversity of perspectives on the matter of human sexuality. We have faithful clergy and laity who are members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and others who align with the Reconciling Ministries Network. We have longtime United Methodists who will be heartbroken if the Traditional Plan IS NOT adopted, and many others who will be devastated if it IS adopted. We have those who plant their theological roots in progressive soil; others whose roots are decidedly traditionalist; and still others who feel more comfortably rooted in the ground that exists somewhere between the more divergent patches of land.
In light of that truth, here are some things that I would request of you:
1. Tell the truth as clearly and simply as you can—that the Commission On a Way Forward has put forth three options to be considered by next year's General Conference, and that each option represents the heartfelt convictions of deeply devoted Christ-followers.
2. Please resist the temptation to become cynical about these matters, especially if people attempt to take you down a negative road. The sky is not falling here. Rather, our denomination is doing its prayerful best to consider meaningful options in a very complex time. This is a necessary thing.
3. Make clear that the Discipline’s current proscriptions related to human sexuality are still in effect, as is the Discipline’s affirmation that all persons are of sacred worth, created in the image of God, irrespective of their sexual identity.
4. Help individuals and groups to understand that people who love Jesus can amicably disagree over how to interpret and apply Biblical teaching. For example, if someone says to you, "How can one believe the Bible and still allow for this conversation?" you may want to respond by helping the person to understand that differing Biblical interpretations have never been the litmus test for salvation. Our relationship with Jesus as Lord is the foundation of our salvation, and there is gracious space for differing theologies and biblical interpretations when it comes to living out that relationship. Our denomination has affirmed this throughout its history.
5. Participate in one of the 20 Listening Posts facilitated by our Conference’s Way Forward Task Force. These listening posts will be dialogical opportunities to voice hopes and concerns related to the Way Forward plans and to learn from one another in the process. Two of these listening posts are on the Butler District. Here is a link to register for the listening posts: https://www.wpaumc.org/A-Way-Forward
6. Remind people that the history of United Methodism has been a magnificent part of God's redemption of the world. Our denomination continues to do incredible work in proclaiming the Gospel with a unique vocabulary of grace, all the while offering ministries of compassion and justice that help to transform the world. United Methodism has more than earned our commitment to walk with it patiently and faithfully in this complicated season.
7. Most of all, pray without ceasing. Pray for our Bishops (including Bishop Cynthia). Pray for the Commission on a Way Forward. Pray for United Methodism and its integrity. Pray for its pastors and congregations. Pray for our great churches in the Butler District. Pray for unity. Pray for next year's session of General Conference. Pray that our part of the Body of Christ will continue to be everything that God is calling and equipping it to be.
Do not be discouraged in this, sisters and brothers. God is in this, doing good and redemptive things. Jesus is still Lord. And we are still a church committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
I am grateful for all of you and the ministry that you so faithfully offer.
Gratefully and prayerfully,