Impressions from UMC Next (and for Conference Elections)

UMC Next - MichaelHere are a few first impressions from the UMC Next gathering last week and implications as we move towards the election of delegates this week.  I will assume that you have read the inspired key principles and heard about the two-fold strategy to “Stay, Resist, and Reform,” while engaging in “Negotiations for Dissolution” if this is deemed to be the most faithful option.

Impression 1.  I felt the tension in my own heart between these two strategies.  I was moved by pain caused by the actions of General Conference and empathized with calls for some form of separation.  And then, I heard powerful statements from African Americans and women who have stayed and struggled for justice and inclusion for generations.  To leave too quickly could dishonor those who have stayed and made such a difference by being prophets among us.  I was moved, for example, by the story of how one Conference elected women to go to General Conference, knowing that these women would be turned away because “laymen” meant “male.”  I am so glad that these women continued the struggle.  Perhaps, they can serve as inspiration.  Whether we ultimately schism or not, we need those committed to the cause and those willing to work together. There is strength in numbers.

Impression 2. We must find ways to model the church that we want to become. That means we must be intentional about inclusivity and honoring all voices at the table.  In this light, I stand convicted as one who is responsible for scheduling our Uniting Dinner on Wednesday Night at the same time as the Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) dinner.  My first response was that it was “unintentional,” motivated by wanting to meet before the elections on Wednesday night.  It was Maxine Allen, a true prophet among us, who agreed that it was unintentional and pointed out that we need to be intentional if we are to live up to the values we claim.  Yes, faithfulness to the vision given at UMC Next calls for much more intentionality.

Impression 3.   I am thankful that our leadership group, first for Uniting Methodists and then for UMC Next, has been open about our participation.  There were many at UMC Next who were reluctant to be open about their advocacy.  In this regard, I think of a conversation I had with Lynn Kilbourne as we were planning a rally for the One Church Plan at Annual Conference last year (that seems so long ago).  I expressed my thankfulness to be in a place, in terms of age and appointment, where I could be a vocal advocate without as much fear of consequences.  I asked Lynn if she was sure about taking a public stance knowing that some heat would come.  She confessed some concern, but then said, “It’s the right thing to do.” We need that kind of leadership as we work for a church that cultivates unity in love rather than uniformity by law and goes back to a biblical vision of making room for all, not just back to a time when discrimination was justified.

You are invited to join this holy work. As a step this week, please join us in electing a delegation that will represent the emerging vision that God is giving.  If you want to be a part of a more organized effort, let me, or any involved, know. There is a plan. We need to work together, or we risk a delegation that wants to perfect the punitive/exclusionary plan with little influence for an alternative vision. For one more impression from the gathering, I no longer want to use the term “traditional plan” because I do not believe it honors the living tradition of the church.  When it comes to honoring our tradition, we can do so much better.

Naming Our Values in a New Reality

IMG_4576At a recent gathering of around 80 of us, under the title of “Uniting Methodists,” we spent time naming our values in a new reality after GC2019. If you were at this meeting you will recognize much of what was said.  The hope of the conveners is that these values will serve as a light to guide us into a faithful way forward. We invite you to prayerfully use them for guidance and for holy conversation. We value…  

Unity in Love rather than Uniformity by Law

The plan passed at General Conference establishes strict mandatory penalties around only one concern, requires oaths to be taken to serve in certain leadership positions. and takes accountability away from resident bishops and peers.  Parts of this plan have been likened by our Judicial Council as establishing an “inquisitional court.” There are many with traditional, progressive, and centrist perspectives who do not believe this represents the calling of Christ. We are called to come together at the holy table where unity is not rooted in uniformity of opinions but in the call to love in the midst of blessed diversity. We will continue to have many theological and social issues to discuss.  It is through our struggles together that we learn how to love.

Making Room for All

The value of inclusiveness has been expressed with a variety of constituencies in mind. At the holy table, we value those with traditional, centrist, and progressive perspectives. In the light of our current conversation, we want to affirm our LGBTQ+ siblings, and honor the gifts they bring into the community of faith.  We want to encourage young persons to be leaders among us, and we continue our commitment to be more inclusive in terms of ethnicity.  As United Methodist Christians, we want to reclaim the “big tent,” practice hospitality, avoid “us and them” language, be transparent, and cultivate ministries that are attentive to contexts. We believe that diversity, within the Body of Christ, is a great strength and helps us give witness to the kingdom of God in our midst.  

A High(er) View of Scripture

As the inspired Word of God, the scriptures come to life in holy conversations and relationships.  In these conversations, we often do not get easy answers but must struggle with the tensions and different perspectives found within the scriptures themselves.  Faithfulness moves us beyond proof-texting and using scriptures to affirm our prejudices and opinions.  In community, we honor the whole, notice the context, and seek God’s intended message for us in our time and place. With Wesley as our guide, we look to key texts to help us interpret all of scripture, with the summary of the law and prophets offered by Jesus as the master key, where love is described as the royal law.  We read scripture through the lens of the risen Christ and through his will for us and for all.   

Wesleyan Holiness

In defining holiness, Wesley consistently used the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness. He also talked about the opposite of holiness with words like pride, passion, judgment of others, and zeal for our own righteousness. True holiness is rooted in the love God has planted in our hearts.

A Sexual Ethic Rooted in Values rather than Personal Identity

While we affirm unity rather than uniformity, faithfulness does demand some agreement.  In humility, we acknowledge that we do not fully understand matters of sexual orientation and identity. At the same time, we affirm a strong sexual ethic rooted in the values of monogamy, faithfulness, commitment, and the virtues summed up with the word love.  We affirm pastors and congregations who want the freedom to respond in contextual ways to all who desire to grow in God’s love and live in relationships where they can practice these life-giving values. We want to adopt a denominational policy built on a shared ethic around calling and character, as opposed to policies that make judgments around personal identity.

Being Hopeful and Realistic

We affirm our calling to bear with one another in love and to seek unity of spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1-3).  After General Conference, we have concluded that this calling may not manifest itself as “unity of structure.” At the same time, we do not believe we should retreat into another “like-minded camp” where the virtues of our calling – humility, patience, and kindness – are not really needed.  We want to cultivate a community where all are welcomed at the table and where we can truly learn how to love. 

We also trust that politics, defined as the art of making good decisions for the whole, can be consistent with the call of the Holy Spirit.  In this light, we ask you to help elect persons who will be active and vocal advocates for the values we have named above.  We do not believe that this is a time for neutrality or to elect those who might approach General Conference with a desire to perfect the Traditional Plan.   

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