A Way Forward: Bible Study and Holy Conversation – Session 1

Last nway forwardight we started an eight-session gathering at the Well (our Wednesday Night Program) leading up to General Conference.  Here are my notes for session one, which was intended to set the tone and give an update on where we are at this point. The big goal for this process is clarity about who we are as a congregation, regardless of what happens in St. Louis…

I want to invite all of you into a vision.  In a very real sense I want you to envision this place in 100 years.  Picture our spiritual grandchildren (and some biological grandchildren) worshiping here and gathering here to grow in a relationship with a living Lord.  In 100 years from now they may come in flying cars, or beam in, or have mini interactive screens projecting from their eyes –who knows — but they will be here – and I believe will be worshiping in the Wesleyan tradition in some way.

What does that mean? What does it mean to envision a congregation worshiping here in the Wesleyan tradition in one hundred years? Here are a few summary statements:

  • It means that they will err towards grace over judgement.
  • They will be open to people who are different.
  • They will see that our primary task on this earth is to learn how to love more fully and grow in the virtues of patience, kindness, forgiveness, humility, generosity and gracefulness. In Wesleyan language, this is called Holiness.
  • They will hold fast to the core truths of the faith (as outlined in the creeds we say every week) and beyond that they will “think and let think.” (How many of you have heard that?)
  • They will see salvation as more than a decision about the future, but a present reality connecting us to eternity. (This is from Wesley’s first sermon in the standard sermons).

Can you envision this kind of congregation here in the future?  During these next few weeks, I want to invite you into this vision. And I will be bold to say that this is a calling from God.  I do want you to trust me on that, but not totally take my word for it. I don’t have the whole answer. We’ve got to figure that out together.  And, to do so, we must stay connected to God’s inspiration and guidance, in two essential ways – through the Holy Spirit and through the Scriptures. We need to plant this vision into the scriptures, prayer, and tradition of the church and see if this vision can grow from there.

With that hope, I’ll start with a passage that we will use to frame this whole conversation.  (On screen) The Apostle Paul says, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…” (Eph 4:1-6).  We will look at this text, and several others, as we journey together these next few weeks.  Tonight, I want to focus briefly on a couple of words. The first one is “beg.”  The Apostle Paul is doing more than “inviting” us into a vision.  Inviting is a bit soft. Paul is begging, urging, pleading with us to live into the calling of God upon our lives. And here is an important thing to note.  This calling is not rooted in doctrine or policies – these are important as resources and guides – but are not at the core of this calling– this is not about defending doctrine — at the core of our calling is to a particular way of behaving; it is about how we treat one another.  Paul begs us to give a particular kind of witness to the world in how we love one another.

There is one other word that I want to highlight tonight — Unity (as a preview).  The normative function of the Spirit is to lead us into unity – with synonym like reconciliation, community, and harmony. I suppose the Spirit could lead to division and divorce in some circumstances, but that would be very rare.  I don’t think we are that special – that we are above or beyond the calling to engage in the hard work of loving one another. Therefore, we can presume that the work of the Holy Spirit in all of this is to lead us into unity.  (We will see this through many passages).

And so, if we can start with this premise, then we need to understand what this unity is and is not.  Here are a few summary statements that will guide us:

  • Biblical unity is not defined by uniformity. These are not the same thing. In fact, a great case can be made that biblical unity is actually found in the opposite of uniformity.
  • Unity is found in the body of Christ with many and diverse parts, gifts, perspectives.
  • Unity is found in a community where virtues like patience, kindness, and humility are required. These virtues are not needed in a community where everyone is the same.
  • Unity is found in love that “never insists on its own way.” That is our challenge.

We are called to give witness to this kind of unity or community.   That has always been a part of who we are as United Methodist Christians.

With that I want to get to our purpose tonight and that is to give an overview and update on the Way Forward at the denominational level.  (Go to onechurchplan.org and show the Countdown to General Conference in February and talk a little about this) At this special called session of General Conference there will be 3 proposals that have come from the Bishops and the Way Forward Commission. The charge of this commission and to the bishops was to work towards unity and help us find a way forward together.  (We have given this background before and it is available). Tonight, I want to focus on an updated versions of the plans — and my impressions.

I will start with the plan that has gotten the least attention until this week when our Bishop came out with his call for us to give this plan a new look…

 The Connectional Conference Plan. 

(for details see the Bishop’s Reflections at arumc.org or the ARUMC Facebook page)

In brief, this plan does call us to unity in a higher way than our opinions on the issues at hand, while at the same time protects convictions around these issues.  Through a series of complicated legislative moves, this plan would create one church with three branches – progressive, traditional and unity, all around one issue — and conferences, congregations, and clergy could vote to align themselves with a particular branch. This plan would require the passing of multiple constitutional amendments (elaborate a bit).  For a few impressions that might fit with other plans as well, I personally don’t like the labels.  Such labels can imprison us and lock us out of our own growth.  I don’t want to be a part of a church where everyone is expected to think the same way.  That takes away possibilities for transformation, which comes, most often in my experience, when we are free to question and seek and be challenged by others.  Withdrawing into like-minded camps may be comfortable but it is not healthy for the Body of Christ. Then I ask, “what about the next issue?” Are we going to create more branches?   And finally, I must ask why this proposal is getting renewed attention at this point.  Many are speculating that three options make it harder for anything to pass.

The Traditional Plan

This plan is built around the firm conviction that the church cannot allow or bless any covenant relationship where sex might be involved that is not between a biological male and female.  In addition, no one can serve in ordained leadership who have relationships outside of this same arrangement. Within this plan, a person’s sexuality takes precedence over calling, gifts, faithfulness, character, and fruitfulness.  This plan not only keeps all restrictive language around homosexuality within the Book of Discipline, but it also strengthens ways to enforce all prohibitions that are currently there.  In its original form, this plan sets up a structure for the bishops to enforce these restrictions.  The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church (a body like the Supreme Court) ruled that many parts of this plan were unconstitutional, including a section that said that bishops were never intended to be an “inquisitional court.”  With this ruling, the plan was modified to ask General Conference to form a separate body which would serve this function of policing and enforcing around this one issue.  This plan would possibility lead to an increase in church trials and hard decisions.  One way that this plan mitigates this possibility is by offering, what is called, a “gracious exit” for all who do not want to live by this strict standard and who believe that there are other ways to faithfully interpret scripture and live together as the Body of Christ.

The One Church Plan 

(See onechurchplan.org and my blog, connectedinchrist.net. I have written a lot on this and thus makes it hard to summary)

This plan removes language that calls the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teachings.  It does not, however, add any language that says it is compatible. In many places, it adds language to protect convictions and religious freedoms of all in various contexts and cultures.  No conference, congregation, or clergy would ever be compelled to act contrary to their convictions.  This plan defaults to a traditional understanding of marriage, while offering congregations the opportunity to change their wedding policies to allow for same-sex unions or marriage. This is the only time a vote would be needed within this plan.  In addition, a pastor could not perform (or offer the vows) for such a union at the church without this direct consent by the congregation.  (Even now, pastors can participate in such ceremonies short of leading the vows).  This plan would also allow boards of ordained ministry to develop their own evaluation systems for who they would ordain around issues of sexuality.  With that said, it is also important to note that this plan clearly upholds biblical values of monogamy, faithfulness, and relationships where people can truly grow in the love of God. The plan even strengthens a commitment to these values.  These values would be the primary criteria for evaluating candidates for ministry, while still allowing conferences to include the same restrictions that are currently in place if that was the will of the body.  This plan provides “a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context without disbanding the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church.”  To explain this, I did write one piece where I called this the “Very Traditional One Church Plan.”

Another Option is that nothing passes.  This is a real possibility.  It is one of the reasons that I want to spend the next few weeks, not talking directly about General Conference and what might happen, but about who we are as a congregation regardless of what happens.  What do we represent?  How are we to live as a witness to the love of God?  How will we love one another and give witness to true unity in the midst of whatever happens or doesn’t happen?

Table Discussion:

We had around 70 in the room, gathering around tables.  We invited them to reflect together on this initial question: “what questions do you bring to this conversation, to become a part of our conversation the next few weeks?” Here are the questions reported back from the tables:

  • Are same-sex couples welcomed to be full participating members of our church? Depending on which plan is passed, would they feel welcomed? What can we do to encourage them to remain a part of the church?
  • What can pastors do, or not do, now? What freedom do you have now to marry or not marry couples?
  • What are the values we want to promote in covenant relationships and marriages? Monogamy, faithfulness, etc., or focus primarily on sexuality?  Are there different values for different people?
  • What happens to gay clergy who are in the closet? What about those who come out or already have in the hope of change?
  • Would the Conference be able to ordain a gay pastor?
  • If and when a vote happens at the church, with the youth get to participate in the vote?
  • How will we support one another post decision? If a majority likes the decision, how do we support the minority?  How do we stay Conway FUMC once a decision for one side or the other is made?
  • What are the financial implications? If we lose people, we lose money as well?
  • How do we draw more people into this conversation so that people aren’t just waiting for a decision to be made and then decision whether to stay or go?
  • How do any of these plans bring about unity? Why is unity important?
  • How can I “defend” my opinion, with good theological and biblical grounding, with family members who have a very different perspective?
  • What glorifies God? To hold true to traditional views?  To support marriages?  To turn people away who want to live in committed relationship that honor God and helps them to grow in God’s love? Does that glorify God?
  • What if nothing changes? Or what if we come together around a witness and nothing changes at General Conference?

Author: Michael Roberts

I am the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas. I love this work! Playing guitar, reading/writing, and theological conversation are among my favorite pastimes. My wife, Deidre is also an ordained United Methodist minister, and we have three wonderful children, all adults, and two grandchildren. I hold degrees from the University of Central Arkansas (BA), Duke University Divinity School (M.Div), and Southern Methodist University (D.min).

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