The discussion and debates about human sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion in church life have gone on a long time in the United Methodist Church. We recognize that we, as a denomination, are still not of one mind. And we recognize that we are not of one mind in any of our Jurisdictions or Conferences or Local Churches. The same goes for other denominations and Christian groups. We differ in our understandings of Scriptural holiness and matters of justice. We differ in our interpretations of Scripture and our understandings of faithfulness. And yet we remain in one church…one denomination.
And so, our denomination is looking to how we find “A Way Forward” as we strive to fulfill the mission of the church in the face of these disagreements. Perhaps we can find “A Way Forward,’ making a space for both those churches and conferences who want to include LGBTQ individuals in their ministries and also for those who want to keep the more restrictive, traditional language presently in the Book of Discipline. Perhaps “A Way Forward” means finding a way to split amicably, letting those who disagree with the church’s direction leave without a large burden. Perhaps “A Way Forward” requires a whole new denominational structure.
These are issues that our denomination’s “Commission on a Way Forward” has been discerning over the last few years. And our Bishops have been engaged in some similar work.
After a long period of discernment and several meetings the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops has strongly recommended “A Way Forward” as One Church. Even though the General Conference, meeting in 2019, is the body that will vote and implement one of the potential plans to move us forward, the bishops have recommended the “One Church Model” which calls for the denomination to stay together while allowing for differences in how some regions address LGBTQ issues for missional effectiveness.
Said Council of Bishops President Ken Carter: “With convicted humility, bishops want to be pastors and shepherds of the whole church in order to maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible and with as much contextual differentiation as possible.”
Our own bishop, Elaine Stanovsky, in response to the Council’s recommendation, wrote: “While forces around the world are sowing distrust and driving wedges to divide people against one another, we hope The United Methodist Church can be a witness to the whole world that people can live together in peace and love each other, despite profound disagreements, even as we continue to discern God’s will and way for the whole human family.”
Across the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area (Oregon, Idaho, Washington, & Alaska) we are participating in this important discussion through our “Table Talks.” These are gatherings at local churches across the Area, bringing clergy and laypersons together for difficult and heartfelt discussions surrounding this topic that is so important in the life of our denomination at this time. After the first two sessions at Anchor Park UMC in Anchorage and Soldotna UMC on the Kenai Peninsula, four more conversations were held over the last two weekends: Turnagain UMC (Anchorage), Christ First UMC (Wasilla), Aldersgate UMC (Juneau), and First UMC (Anchorage).
Kathryn Jordan attended the event in Wasilla. She says, “Before attending I knew that I felt strongly about inclusion of all people in our congregations and hoped for a chance at productive discussion time. The conversation at our table was respectful… We understand the difficulty of the process but feel moving to include all LGBTQ persons is what we are called to do. I pray that we find a way forward that includes all persons in our faith communities.”
But not all those in attendance have felt that we need to move to include all LGBTQ persons. Moreover, among those who want full inclusion, there is not one perspective of what that might look like across the denomination. Therefore these “Table Talks” have been a place for all voices to be heard and, as Bishop Stanovsky put it, “be a witness to the whole world that people can live together in peace and love one another, despite profound disagreements.”
There is one more Table Talk on the schedule, May 12th in Fairbanks. You can sign up through The Greater Northwest Episcopal Area Website.
Moreover, there is a great opportunity at Annual Conference in Seward to participate in a pre-conference workshop on Thursday, May 31st on a book that has served as a backdrop to these discussions. The book is The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict by the Arbinger Institute. The workshop will be led by Rev. Donna Prichard who is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward. It’s a great chance to discuss how we can move forward without conflict but with peace within our differences.