By: Christa Meland
More than 800 Minnesota United Methodists gathered in seven locations across the state in late September and early October to learn about the possibilities for a way forward for The United Methodist Church around the issue of homosexuality and to share their hopes, dreams, concerns, and questions.
In February 2019, at a Special Session of General Conference (the denomination’s top law-making body), United Methodist delegates from around the world will decide how to move forward as a denomination, specifically related to whether to allow clergy to perform same-sex weddings and whether to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough and members of the Minnesota delegation to the 2019 General Conference led the series of “Way Forward” conversations. Part of the goal behind them was to help build resiliency in churches so that regardless of what the denomination decides, they can continue to focus on their shared mission and be the church together. (Watch video of full conversation at Centenary UMC in Mankato on Sept. 30.)
'Us and them'
In a sermon given at each gathering, Bishop Ough referenced the narrative in Acts, chapters 10-15, which relates the early church’s struggle with the acceptance and inclusion of “pagan” Gentiles and the Jerusalem Council’s deliberations about whether welcome uncircumcised followers of Jesus. Ultimately, the elders at the Jerusalem Council agreed to issue a letter welcoming uncircumcised followers of Jesus that announced that the “Holy Spirit has led us to a decision that no burden should be placed on you other than these essentials” of discipleship.
Ough pointed out that this was one of the earliest “us and them” stories in the Church.
While talking about the sin of “us and them” divisions, he shared a question he said has haunted him for some time: “Does the world need The United Methodist Church to teach it how to divide, or does the world need The United Methodist Church to teach it how to live together with its different theological perspectives and its different ministry contexts?”
Ough told attendees that the way for us to be the church now and in the future is to stay in love with union. And he said unity is more closely related to the way of the cross than to the way of our worldly power and politics; it is more closely related to Christ’s brokenness and humility than it is our correctness.
“I have come to the conclusion that the solution of the Jerusalem Council was not driven by a move toward loosening accepted codes of conduct or a conviction to be radically inclusive, but by an evangelical and missional commitment to grow the kingdom of God,” Ough said. “Imagine what new missional zeal and evangelistic passion for reaching new generations might be unleashed if we, like the Jerusalem Council, could unbind The United Methodist Church for truly passionate witness, service, and ministry to all people in every context.” (Watch video of sermon given at Centenary UMC in Mankato on Sept. 30 or access written version of sermon.)
'Building a heart of peace'
At the beginning of the gatherings, attendees read together a covenant for conversation through which they agreed to ask questions, to speak in truth and love, to assume trust and not suspicion, and to speak to be understood and not to convince.
Dave Nuckols, a member of the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward that’s spent the past two years working to address the denomination’s differences around homosexuality, outlined the three possible plans that the commission came up with and that will be at the forefront of the 2019 General Conference. The Council of Bishops is recommending the “One Church Plan.” (Read about each plan here.)
Nuckols, also a member of Minnetonka UMC and the conference’s lay leader, told attendees that key to the commission’s work was “building a heart of peace” that allowed members to trust and respect one another despite their differing views on the matter at hand. And although denominational disagreements about homosexuality are vitally important, he said the commission focused on what unites them as they completed their work: “The things that we have in common as United Methodists, the things that we have in common as Christians, are far greater and far more numerous, far more significant to the life of the church than the things that we have that divide us,” he told the crowd gathered at Centenary UMC.
After learning more about the three plans that the commission outlined, attendees at each gathering reflected in small groups on what further clarifications they need about the three plans, how they would describe their feelings about the “One Church Plan,” and how they think their congregations would respond if that plan was adopted.
Bishop Ough reminded attendees that one of the most serious implications in the decision about how to move forward is The United Methodist Church’s connectional mission and witness. “If there is significant division within the life of the church, quite frankly, the victims…will be many of our institutional ministries and much of our global mission,” he told those gathered at Centenary UMC. “The United Methodist Church has an outsized impact in the world. For our size, we have a greater impact on doing good in the world than almost anybody.”
'We are the way forward'
Ough emphasized unity throughout the gathering and told attendees at Centenary UMC, “We know that relationships of trust and a focus on the mission are the things that tend to unite us more than anything else.” Much of work that’s being done around the “One Church Plan” is to maintain relationships and focus on mission, he said, and he cautioned that language around “exits” should be used carefully so as not to encourage churches to leave.
Toward the end of each gathering, attendees were asked to finish this sentence: “I hope The United Methodist Church will find a way forward by…”
At the Centenary UMC gathering, attendees said they wanted the church to find a way forward by “choosing acceptance,” “showing a lot of grace,” “being viewed as a child of God,” “loving all neighbors,” “not insisting on our own way,” and “intentionality.”
Bishop Ough concluded his sermon with a powerful reminder that we can decide in this very moment to be the way forward.
“We are the way forward by the way we treat one other, by the way we love one other,” he said. “We can be the way forward by embracing what we hold in common, by keeping the mission of God the main thing. This debate that has paralyzed us is not the main thing. We can move forward by embracing the reality that we are called to love as God first loved us. This is our witness. This is how we can be the church of Jesus Christ.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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