By: Doreen Gosmire
More than 1,300 United Methodists from Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota have been in conversation with Bishop Bruce R. Ough, resident bishop for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, about the work of the Commission on A Way Forward. Ough held 15 gatherings at local churches in September, October, and November.
The 2016 General Conference called upon the Council of Bishops to guide The United Methodist Church in finding a “way forward” through the four-decade-long divide we have had on the matter of homosexuality. As a result, the Council formed a Commission on A Way Forward to assist the bishops with this task. The Commission will make its final report to the Council of Bishops in May 2018, and the Council, in turn, will make its recommendation to a called session of the General Conference in February 2019.
The 15 gatherings informed participants about deliberations and progress of the Commission. It was also a chance for those attending to share thoughts and ask questions about the church's current position regarding homosexuality and related issues in the structures and rules of the UMC.
The debate around LGBTQ participation in the United Methodist Church has been around since 1972. It reached new height and tension at the 2016 conference when word of schism was imminent. Ough described the conflict this way at a gathering held at Fargo Calvary UMC in North Dakota. “We can’t perpetuate the current conflict over polity and the LGBTQ community. I have been in ministry for over 40 years defending and teaching our polity. It is hard. We must place our trust in God and each other. The Commission has been given the authority and space to imagine a different church,” Ough told over 160 participants at that gathering.
The Commission is focusing its work on mission, unity, and flexibility. “If there’re three words you will hear over and over again during this process,” Ough stated at a gathering held at Centennial UMC in Roseville, Minnesota, “they are mission, unity, and flexibility.”
Ough said, “Our work is to focus on the mission of the church—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We need to maximize the witness of the church. When the dust settles, we hope that the recommendations advance the witness, the missio dei—the mission, of the church.”
Unity is a core aspect of the theology of The United Methodist Church. The Commission shares John 15: “Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches” as a key scripture that shapes unity of the church. “The words, ‘Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can,’ shape our United Methodist witness. These words, the Nicene Creed, and the Wesley hymns, are the core that binds us, the branches, to the vine, The United Methodist Church,” stated Ough.
The 32-member Commission is a very diverse body with members from all across the globe, and includes bishops, clergy, and laity. Dave Nuckols, a lay person from Minnesota, is one of the 32 members. The members represent a broad spectrum of views on the interpretations of homosexuality and Christian teaching. The task before them is to make recommendations that expand the mission, and maintain as much unity as possible, but allow for flexibility to contextualize the Gospel.
“We have given them a difficult task to see if they can work with all of the dynamics,” said Ough. “What would it look like to have more contextual interpretations? Contextual interpretation happens in central conferences (conferences outside North America) but not in North America.”
Ough recommended all Minnesota and Dakotas United Methodists explore four books—Unafraid and Unashamed, by Wil Cantrell; Is it Time?, by Adolf Hansen; Finding Our Way, edited by Bishop Rueben P. Job and Neil M. Alexander; and Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease, by David N. Field.
“Buckle your seat belts, because what is coming is a church that will not be the same,” said Ough, noting that some churches, unhappy with unrelated matters in the UMC, are going to leave no matter what the Commission decides. “The day after the 2019 General Conference, I am going to go back to work and doing what God is calling us to do. God will still be God. God will be faithful. There will still be people that need to be fed.”
Doreen Gosmire is director of communications for the Dakotas Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church