Delegates accept bishops’ recommendation to delay human sexuality debate, create commission

May 18, 2016
Bishop Bruce R. Ough reads a statement about sexuality and the church from the denomination's Council of Bishops. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS

By: Christa Meland

On Wednesday, delegates voted 428-405 to accept a Council of Bishops recommendation to delay a debate on human sexuality until a new commission can examine the issue. All petitions related to human sexuality have been deferred as a result of the vote.

The bishops will name a special commission that would completely examine and possibly recommend revisions of every paragraph in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, that are related to human sexuality. The commission will represent the different regions of the global church as well as the varied perspectives of its people.

Should the commission complete its work before 2020, the year of the next scheduled General Conference, the bishops would call a special two- to three-day gathering in 2018 or 2019 where human sexuality could be further discussed.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough presented the council’s recommendation, in the form of a statement that he read, on Wednesday morning as other bishops stood behind him.

Minnesota delegates support plan

Minnesota delegates expressed joy about the outcome of the vote—particularly after a similar motion proposed by Rev. Adam Hamilton of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas was narrowly defeated.
“We’ve just had two Easters this spring—a total resurrection,” said Delegate Faye Christensen. “I am amazed and just so hopeful for this General Conference.”
Delegate Sara Ann Swenson shared that sentiment. She compared the discussion leading up to the vote to the story of Elijah in 1 Kings: 19. In that story, there was a powerful wind that tore the mountains apart, then an earthquake, then ta fire—and after all of that came the Lord’s gentle whisper.
“Today it felt like we had great wind, an earthquake, and a fire,” she said. “And then in a moment of stillness, we decided to invite God’s voice and decided to add more time and contemplate this together. I’m really grateful for that, and I think this is a good move for unity.”
When asked about the timeline and the plan for a special General Conference session in two or three more years, Swenson said, “We need to think of things in a God-sized perspective and God is eternal. We do have a very human mix of pride and impatience to get things done…but if we are God’s people in the world, then we can think on a big scale. Two years is nothing.”

Rev. Judy Zabel agrees. “I think we need to have space to breathe and to listen for the Holy Spirit in an environment that gives us space and time to do that well,” she said. “The bishops’ recommendation is a step in the right direction...The one thing we need to remember as we enter into this process is to love one another deeply even in the midst of our differences and to continue to work for the bond of peace even with those with whom we disagree.”

Rev. David Bard, head of the delegation, echoed the other delegates and said the commission is a good idea.
“We’ve had conversations about human sexuality, but the most intense ones have been in legislative contexts,” he said. “We’ve not brought together a group of people on behalf of the whole denomination to talk about how we might move forward in the midst of some of our very different views on sexuality. This gives us a chance to have a good, solid conversation not under the pressure of trying to be legislative.”

How we got here
The debate on human sexuality has intensified in recent years as more countries, including the United States, have legalized same-sex marriage.

The Book of Discipline current prohibits clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings and bans the ordination of “self-avowed gay clergy.” Since 1972, the Discipline has asserted that all people are of sacred worth, but the church considers the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

There has been talk of possible schism in the hallways at General Conference, and legislation is on the table that would allow congregations to disaffiliate from the denomination with their property.

“We share with you a deep commitment to the unity of the church in Christ our Lord,” Ough told the multi-national assembly. “Within the church, we are called to work and pray for more Christ-like unity with each other rather than separation from one another. This is the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21-23.”

Ough presented the Council of Bishops report after General Conference delegates made a nonbinding request that bishops offer a path forward out of the “painful condition” the church in this long-simmering debate over sexuality.

The recommendation came near the beginning of a plenary when General Conference delegates expected to take up possible changes to the Discipline regarding ministry with LGBTQ individuals. The initials stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning.

Ough said the bishops continue to hear from many people “that our current Discipline contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional, and global contexts.”  

One of the plans proposed is a “Third Way” submitted by the Connectional Table, a denomination-wide coordinating body. During the past three years, the body has sought compromise in this emotional debate.

Prior to the vote, the bishops asked delegates and other United Methodists at General Conference to spend the allotted debate time instead in prayer and confession.

Ough said the bishops were honored to receive the delegates’ invitation to come up with a proposal for a way forward and believe this is the first time that a General Conference has ever made such a request. Half of the 864 delegates are clergy and half are lay.

Council was not unanimous

The bishops’ statement did not receive the unanimous vote of the council’s members, but the support was overwhelming, Ough said. He added that unanimity is not required for unity.

Bishops do not have a vote at General Conference. They do have the authority to call for a special session of the General Conference, a possibility last considered to address the worldwide economic crisis of 2008. The bishops in 2009 ultimately opted not to call a session that time.

 “Strengthening the unity of the church is a responsibility for all of us,” Ough said.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Heather Hahn and Sam Hodges from United Methodist News Service contributed to this report.

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