“Table Talking” to Find Our “Way Forward”

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).

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Table Talk at Christ First UMC in Wasilla

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.

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Table Talk at Turnagain UMC in Anchorage

“Table Talks” Begin in the Alaska Conference

IMG_1471“The Lord be with you,” said Superintendent Carlo Rapanut to begin the second of the Alaska Conference’s “Table Talks” on Saturday, April 21st. And, being dutiful United Methodists, the twenty-five gathered participants from across the Kenai Peninsula responded, “And also with you.”

This was a beneficial way to begin a session addressing issues of LGBTQI inclusion in the United Methodist Church and the issues surrounding human sexuality that serve as the reason for a special, called General Conference Session in 2019. Perhaps recognizing that the Lord is indeed with us is a fitting reminder before discussing a topic that has taken so much of the church’s energy and left so many wounded people in its wake over the last forty year.

The Lord is with us.

The participants were then taken through a 3.5 hour process to discuss this topic which, indeed, threatens to tear the church apart. In our world today we have seemingly lost the ability to talk about this issue and so many other issues about which we disagree. Instead, we surround ourselves with those who already think like we do, amplifying our voices and perspectives, and failing to be challenged. Susie Smalley, who co-led this session with Superintendent Rapanut, said, “Civil conversation seems more difficult than it used to be.”

And so, we, the participants, were there to have civil conversation, to hear the perspective of the other, to have a safe place to share our history and thoughts and feel like we had been heard.

This was a small exercise in what is needed in the larger church, hearing concerns, noting how we disagree, and somehow finding a way to keep our United Methodist Church “United.” The conversations we were hoping to have around tables in Soldotna was a part of what is needed across the denomination. Said, Bishop Elaine Stanovsky via video: “We don’t agree about human sexuality and we don’t know how to live together with our differences.” But through these “Table Talks” it was hoped that people, both being heard and hearing from others, could see that we all belong at the table.

IMG_1467Holy Communion, and the image of the table, started us off. We were then reminded that, even for Jesus, not everyone agreed. There were times of great discord among the disciples. Yet they found a way to gather around a table and get food for the road ahead.

To warm up and create that safe place for sharing, the participants talked about how they have dealt with conflict; in their families growing up and now. Some bottled up their differences, never addressing the proverbial elephant in the room. Others felt that they openly talked about difficult topics. Some recounted times that they were hurt or felt like only one perspective (one of the parents, usually) was respected.

That paved the way for talking about matters related to LGBTQI inclusion, something about which there has been great conflict in the life of the church. The hope is that, after breaking bread together and after having time to share and find common ground, those in attendance would feel like they could be honest, without fearing being judged or feeling pushed from the table.

There was a variety of experience because each table had five different participants. Some groups felt very free to share. Others were more reserved and shared “enough,” just to keep the conversation going.

Clearly, some truly appreciated the chance to talk. Lavonne Currier said after it was over, “It’s a good conversation.” Janice Carlton reported, “I think this table did an amazing job being open and taking risks. It was an amazing table.” Nora Appel said, “It was nice to sit down and be able to talk with respect. I was comfortable with that. And I’m comfortable going back to our church and discuss what was said here.”

But beyond our own personal perspectives and history on concerning LGBTQI inclusion, it was the first time that many understood how the issues of inclusion are affecting the larger church. Dave Currier said, “It’s an informed conversation as I didn’t understand all that was happening in the UMC.” There are two options that are being discussed by the larger church which could change the church rather dramatically and it’s unclear what option, if either, could be adopted. Sharon Brower noted, “I’ll need to go back and look at the two different options for the churches. We discussed it, I think, as well as we could. I will discuss it more down the road, but I’m not comfortable with either choice for the church.”

This was not a gathering that has any authority to make decisions for the larger church. No votes were held. There were no protesters and no pastoral appointments were at stake. These were “Table Talks.” They were opportunities to sit around tables, in communion with one another, recognizing our differences and seeing that God was still able to keep us together in spite of that.

Perhaps that is exactly what the larger church needs.

Here is the schedule for upcoming “Table Talks” over the next few weeks.  Please register on the Greater Northwest Area Website.

April 28 — Turnagain UMC, Anchorage — 9 am – 1 pm
April 29 — Christ First UMC, Wasilla — 1:30 – 5:30 pm
May 5 — First UMC, Anchorage — 9 am – 1 pm
May 5 — Aldersgate UMC, Juneau — 1:30 – 5:30 pm
May 12 — First UMC, Fairbanks — 9 am – 1 pm

Bishop Grant Hagiya to Serve New Episcopal Area in West

Bishop Grant J. Hagiya, presiding over the Western Jurisdictional Conference Session on Friday, July 20, 2012 in San Diego, California. Photo by Patrick Scriven

Bishop Grant J. Hagiya, presiding over the Western Jurisdictional Conference Session on Friday, July 20, 2012 in San Diego, California. Photo by Patrick Scriven

 

By Greg Nelson, Director of Communications for the Oregon-Idaho Conference

The Western Jurisdiction has ratified the assignments of their Committee on Episcopacy for five episcopal areas.

Following action of the 2008 General Conference, the jurisdiction has restructured its episcopal areas so that a new Greater Northwest Episcopal Area, with episcopal residence in Normandy Park, Wash. will provide leadership for the Alaska United Methodist Conference, Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, and the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. This creates the largest geographic episcopal area in the United States.

Other assignments made by the conference were: Bishop Minerva Carcaño to the Los Angeles Area (California-Pacific Annual Conference), Bishop Robert Hoshibata to the Phoenix Area (Desert Southwest Annual Conference), Bishop Elaine Stanovsky to the Mountain Sky Area (Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain Annual Conferences), and Bishop Warner Brown to the San Francisco Area (California-Nevada Annual Conference).

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, who currently serves the Los Angeles Area, will retire at the end of her term in August. With this one retirement, the Western Jurisdiction was left with five Bishops as proscribed by the mandated reduction of leadership.

In recognition of the geography and shared values of the area, the Denver Area has been renamed the Mountain Sky area by the Jurisdictional Conference. Similarly the new episcopal area was named the Greater Northwest Area in recognition of the expanse and diversity of the area rather than the for the location of a residence or office.

The Conference also adopted a motion to change the name of the Alaska Missionary Conference to the Alaska United Methodist Conference. Without changing the status the conference has with the General Board of Global Ministries, this name change creates a more respectful relationship to the indigenous people of Alaska.