While I was on my sabbatical, there was a major development in our denomination that has caused a great deal of conversation, concern, and prayer. I thought it might be helpful for me to give you a summary of where we are and where we’re headed. Hopefully, this will help you to speak more intelligently to your family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers when you’re asked about what’s going on in the United Methodist Church.
The development has to do with the United Methodist stance on human sexuality. The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline is basically the rule book for our denomination. The Book of Discipline addresses human sexuality as follows:
¶161F. Human Sexuality—We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift.
Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
. . . .
We affirm that all persons are individual of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay member and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
¶304.3 While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.
¶341.6 Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.
¶806.9 [The General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church] shall be responsible for ensuring that no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or violate the expressed commitment of The United Methodist Church “not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends” (¶161F). The council shall have the right to stop such expenditures. It shall not limit the Church’s ministry in response to the HIV epidemic.
¶2701.1 [Clergy of The United Methodist Church] may be tried when charged . . .with . . . (b) practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies . . .
With some minor edits, the above quoted provisions have been in the Book of Discipline since first adopted in 1972.
Every four years the global United Methodist Church gathers for General Conference to worship, pray, and conduct the business of the church, including voting on any proposed changes to the Book of Discipline. Each General Conference since 1972 has seen efforts to change the language on human sexuality, but each such General Conference has voted to retain the language regarding sexuality.
At the 2016 General Conference this past May, the delegates voted by 428 to 405 to accept the recommendation of the Council of Bishops to delay a debate on homosexuality at the 2016 conference and to let a proposed special commission study church regulations. This commission will completely examine and possibly recommend revisions of every paragraph in the Book of Discipline related to human sexuality. The commission will be made up of United Methodists from the different regions of the denomination on four continents as well as United Methodists with varied perspectives on the issue of human sexuality. It is currently being formed and will begin its work soon, with the hope of bringing some possible solutions to a called General Conference in 2018 (you can read the latest concerning the commission here).
Bishops in The United Methodist Church are elected by multi-state Jurisdictional Conferences. On July 15 of this year, Rev. Karen Oliveto was elected a Bishop by the Western Jurisdictional Conference. Rev. Oliveto is a married lesbian and the first openly gay Bishop in our denomination. However, she is not the first openly-gay pastor. In the past year, over one hundred clergy have openly acknowledged they are in same-sex partnered relationships, and there have been 13 complaints against pastors for officiating same-sex marriages. In addition, four Annual Conferences – Baltimore-Washington, New York, Pacific Northwest and Northern Illinois – have released statements that their boards of ordained ministry do not make the sexual orientation of candidates a determining factor in their decisions about ordination.
On July 16 of this year, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference (of which the Arkansas Conference is a part) passed a motion requesting a declaratory ruling from the Judicial Council in response to the Western Jurisdictional Conference’s election of an openly gay bishop. This request is authorized by ¶2610.2(f) of the Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council is our version of the Supreme Court and is explained this way on their website:
They will be meeting on October 25-28 to deal with this ruling.
Follow all that? I know it’s a lot, and I want you to know I have been praying fervently for the denomination, for our church here at Central, and for our ability to stay on mission while all of this is in process. Would you be willing to join me in prayer? If so, here are some things to be praying for:
- The Council of Bishops: Pray that they would be led by God’s Holy Spirit as they assemble this commission, and that this work, while of great importance, will not sidetrack them from leading us in the mission of the United Methodist Church, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
- The Special Commission: Pray for those asked to be on the commission and for their work, that God would lead them into his will as they seek a way forward for our denomination.
- The Judicial Council’s Fall Meeting, Oct. 25-28: Pray for each member of the council and their important work surrounding this ruling regarding Rev. Oliveto.
- Central UMC: Pray for our church that we will keep on mission to Connect People to Christ as we Worship Fully, Grow Deeply, Give Freely, Share Passionately and Love Unconditionally. Let’s pray that we keep the main thing the main thing as we seek to help the lost find their way home, help the hurting find the healing touch of Jesus, and fight for those who have no voice to be heard or valued or cared for.
- One Another: Pray that we may lead with love and be full of grace in our conversations regarding this and every issue before us. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we read these words: “Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.” I recently finished a book that I think is a must-read during these difficult times for us as Methodists and as Americans during this political season. It’s called Good Faith, and here’s a great quote from the introduction: “Good conversations demand active listening, mental and emotional engagement, openness to the possibility that we’re wrong, and empathy to see the situation from the other person’s point of view.” Pray that this would be so for all.
This past Sunday I preached about the power and priority of prayer for any spiritual revival, whether in an individual’s life or the life of a congregation. I have been, and will continue to be praying daily for the five items above, and it’s my hope that each of you will join me. As we navigate these waters together, the only way we do so in a God-honoring way is to make sure God is leading us – let’s call on him to do just that.