Monday, June 29, 2015

Bishop Peggy Johnson: Loving Alike with One Heart

John Wesley the founder of the Methodist movement once said “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without a doubt, we may!”
     That is my prayer as we hear today’s ruling of the United States Supreme Court that struck down state laws barring same-gender couples from enjoying marriage on the same terms given to couples of the opposite sex. Included in the statement from the Supreme Court were these words: “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.”
     The justices also stated, “It must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered."
     The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church has not changed with this ruling from the Supreme Court. Only the General Conference of the UMC can change our rules and policies; and General Conference will not meet again until May of 2016 in Portland, Oregon. At that time there will likely be many petitions appealing for same-gender marriages to be permitted for churches and pastors who feel called to engage in this kind of ministry.    

Unity of the church is in question
The denomination's coordinating body, The Connectional Table, has voted to put forth a petition for consideration known as “A Third Way.” This measure would allow UM Clergy to perform ceremonies that celebrate same-gender unions if they wish, and clergy who do not wish to perform such ceremonies would not be required to do so. This proposal also removes being a practicing homosexual or performing same-gender wedding ceremonies from the list of chargeable offenses for United Methodist clergy. (See proposal below.)    
     There are others who wish to keep the Discipline as it is written and who call for stronger accountability for those who break the current church rules about homosexuality and same-gender weddings. One such petition came my way just this week from the Mississippi Annual Conference.
Ministry with people in the LGBTQ community is affirmed in our current Book of Discipline, and for some today’s Supreme Court ruling favoring equality in marriage is a cause for great rejoicing. Other parts of the Discipline do not condone homosexuality and same-gender marriages, and for these people this a cause for concern and disappointment.
     The unity of the church is in question around this issue. It strikes at the heart of many things that we value as United Methodists: primacy of Scripture, tradition, holiness, diversity, social justice, and human rights.

'Both holiness and hospitality are excellent values'
In his sermon at the 2008 General Conference Bishop Hee-Soo Jung spoke of this tension in our church today: “One could argue that those who espouse greater openness are holding fast to biblical principles of hospitality. Those who desire clarity in matters of boundaries, however are adhering to biblical principles of holiness. Both holiness and hospitality are excellent values. Both are biblical and both are right. Of course, they can also both be wrong. The problem is this: When we concern ourselves only with holiness, we become rigid and inward looking. We make an idol of our purity. When we concern ourselves only with hospitality, however, we lose our sense of who we are. We become so open to others that we lose the language of our own faith.” (Celebrating God’s Love: Living into Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, edited by Donald E. Messer, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015, p. 39)
     It is my prayer that we as a United Methodist Church will stay unified in the one heart of Christ that is our core mission and mandate. The mission of the church we can agree on, as Wesley suggests, even if we are not of the same opinion around other issues.
     It is also my prayer that the 2016 General Conference can look seriously at the “Third Way” proposed by the Connectional Table as a means of continuing our main mission with added flexibility so that more people can receive the ministry of the church and more people can be empowered for ministry. To do this would mean that, even while thinking differently, we strive greatly to “love alike,” uniting our hearts in prayer and conversation, and humbly listening to one another.
     I believe we can become stronger and stay unified in the midst of this crucial time in the life of the church. Please pray with me and remain tender-hearted toward one another. Wesley says we can do this “without a doubt.” 
  

Sincerely,
Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
Philadelphia Episcopal Area

The United Methodist Church



__________________________
A Third Way
PROPOSAL III-A THIRD WAY-(Draft legislation has been prepared for this approach).

Remove all prohibitive language from The United Methodist Book of Discipline, but with only minor changes to the existing Social Principles in anticipation of the finalizing of a global Social Principles which may come in 2020, while affirming the existing Disciplinary warrant about who clergy perform weddings for and while affirming the existing constitutional warrant for annual conferences to make decisions about ordination.

BOD: Minor changes to the Social Principles, 161.B and 161.F. Amendments to 304.3,310.2.d, 341.6, 426, and2702.

Impact: Would make minor changes to the Social Principles in anticipation of a global Social Principles. These changes would note, for instance, that historically The United Methodist Church has not condoned the practice of homosexuality.
     In terms of same-sex marriage, this approach would allow the exercise of conscience amongst clergy. Given the current disciplinary warrant (cf. BOD ¶340.2a, 3a) for clergy to determine whom they perform weddings for, clergy who choose to could perform same-sex weddings. Clergy who do not choose to would not be required to perform same-sex weddings.
     Annual conferences, as is already their constitutional warrant (cf. ¶33 of the Constitution), would continue to determine matters of ordination, including whether or not to ordain LGBTQ persons. Bishops would determine where to appoint based on the existing consultative process outlined in the BOD. This option also would remove the practice of homosexuality or the performance of same-sex ceremonies from the categories of chargeable offenses. It would leave the funding restrictions intact.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Connectional Table Essential Functions

CT Essential Function #1:
"To provide a forum for the understanding and implementation of the vision, mission, and ministries of the global church as determined in consultation with the Council of Bishops and/or the actions of General Conference."
IE: CONNECT THE CONNECTION
There are few places between General Conference where almost all of the agencies, jurisdictions, central conferences, youth and young adult organization and U.S. racial-ethnic caucuses come together to better understand the actions of General Conference and discuss the "mission, vision and ministries of our global church." Not only does this body have the responsibility of looking at the church as a whole, but it is tasked with making the ethereal, theoretical, ecclesiological principles and policies become practical and real. It is no small task and it is wrought with wrong turns and pot-holes that often challenge this group of 59 people.

The Connectional Table is a body that is only ten years old to date. This body has been in existence less than three quadrennium, which in the life of our denomination is still in the "childhood" stage with much to learn and much to reconsider. The creators of the body were the members of the 2004 General Conference and (as much of our work in this connection) they named what they felt was the most reasonable and achievable expectations for our church at the time. What I commonly hear about that experience was that, "It was a compromise to address the matters of dysfunction and decline in our connection."

In real life, you don't tell your children, you were a compromise to save our unhappy marriage. In reality, you take the gift God has offered you in new life and you learn to live differently. That is what we have been doing this quadrennium in the work of the Connectional Table. Bishop Bruce Ough, the chair of the CT, started the quadrennium by reminding the CT that God has given this body new life and that we have an opportunity to live differently. Therefore, the CT has been working at living differently, as we seek to discern and articulate the mission, the vision and how we best steward the resources of our beloved connection.

This "forum" of representational members in our UM connection has been living differently by seeing every single person, including agency General Secretaries and Presidents as equal participants in the conversation. We have been seeking to listen to the voices of concern that have come both within our expectations and beyond our expectations. We have also been challenged to LIVE differently by being leaders who PRACTICE our means of grace regularly, both together and individually. The expectation is that every CT member must live as a "principled Christian leader" if we are to envision a UM Connection with more "principled Christian leaders." It has not always been easy, and we have sometimes failed at being gracious and loving towards one another, but we are striving. Our theory is that we can only "understand and implement the vision and mission" if we are ourselves living the vision and mission of our UMC.

The scripture that has grounded me in this role is: Luke 22:26-27
26 But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant. 27 So which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table or the one who serves at the table? Isn’t it the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

The Connectional Table of The UMC is seeking to be the servant leaders of our UM Connection. It is not easy and through many paths of discernment, UM across the connection have sent certain people to this table to work together to offer the people called United Methodists and beyond HOPE for God's work in the world today. With humility, we seek to live into this role for the sake of God's mission through The United Methodist Church.



FOOTNOTE:

Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker serves as the Executive Secretary of The Connectional Table of The UMC. She will be offering a series of blogs on the "Essential Functions" of The CT as mandated by the 2012 General Conference and how the CT has been living into these essential functions since 2012. Questions or comments to this blogpost can be made at ConnectionalTable@UMC.org.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Bishop Mike Coyner: "Accountability Where It Counts"

Recently the Connectional Table of our denomination voted to recommend a series of changes to our Book of Discipline. Like all of the other proposals and petitions that will come to General Conference next year, the vote of the Connectional Table is only a recommendation and not a final decision.

The proposals from the Connectional Table deal with the issue of homosexuality and especially same-gender weddings. Currently our Book of Discipline prohibits our clergy from officiating at such a ceremony, and our Discipline also states that we consider the practice of homosexuality (not the orientation, but the behavior) to be "incompatible with Christian teaching." Given the increasing number of states in the U.S. which have made same-gender marriages legal, along with some countries elsewhere (mostly in Europe and most recently by popular referendum in Ireland), the Connectional Table recommended changing our prohibitions against our clergy performing same-gender weddings. Instead they propose leaving that decision up to the appointed pastor for each church, just as pastors already have the authority to decide whether or not to officiate the wedding for any couple. Likewise the Connectional Table proposal leaves the decision about which candidates to ordain to each Annual Conference, where that authority is already placed in our Book of Discipline.

Of course all of this is controversial because it would likely mean that some pastors would choose to officiate same-gender weddings in states of the U.S. or other countries where such a marriage is legal. In countries where such a marriage is not legal (like most countries in Africa), pastors would not be allowed to make that choice, and no pastor anywhere would be forced to officiate at such a wedding. The decision would be left in the hands of the pastor. The proposals from the Connectional Table are also controversial because it would likely mean that some Annual Conferences would choose to approve the ordination of a candidate who is homosexual, while many other Annual Conferences would not make that choice. The Connectional Table proposals have been roundly criticized by groups on the left (like Love Prevails) and groups on the right (like Good News), so one is left to wonder if their proposals have any chance of being approved at General Conference. Of course being criticized on the left and right could mean that the proposals from the Connectional Table are indeed a compromise or a "third way" as they described it in their deliberations.

If we take the whole issue of homosexuality out of the discussion, I am attracted to one aspect of the Connectional Table proposal: they place accountability at the local church and Annual Conference level where accountability really counts. Our current efforts to hold people accountable from the General Conference level have not worked. Even our efforts as the Council of Bishops to hold one another and the whole church accountable have not worked. In this 21st century era of "flat" organizations, I am not sure if "top down" accountability will ever work again. Rather, we often find that "horizontal" accountability between and among peers is more effective. Perhaps allowing local churches, pastors of those local churches, and local Annual Conferences to make these decisions is a more viable option. Will that make our UMC less "connectional"? Probably so, or maybe it would recognize that we already are less connectional that we were in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Already we are allowing for more and more "localism" in our decision-making. Our Book of Discipline allows for a great deal of flexibility in how local churches organize themselves. Likewise our Annual Conferences are allowed to organize themselves in order to meet their own special missional needs. The Judicial Council has ruled that the pastor of a local congregation has final say over which persons may join that congregation. On and on the list goes ... we are becoming more local in many ways. I know that all Bishops and Cabinets deal with this trend as we make appointments, too, with clergy adding more and more special circumstances as we consider how itinerant they really are (things like kids in school, spouse employment, needs of elderly parents and other geographic considerations). The days of every clergy simply saying "yes" when appointed are gone; nowadays the "consultation process" is written into our Discipline and it is even more complicated in practice. It isn't 1950 anymore in terms of our UMC connectional structure.

It is also true that many rules against practices which are contrary to the Book of Discipline are not enforced and perhaps are not enforceable. For example, rebaptism is clearly against our theology and our rules, but I can't think of the last time that anyone tried to enforce that rule. Rather, we trust the pastoral judgement of our clergy to work with individuals to determine what kind of "renewal" is needed to help their faith journey. Another example is the way we have stretched the role of Local Pastors who now can be appointed to Extension Ministries, can be given permission to serve the sacraments at things like an Emmaus Walk outside of their local parish, etc. We have stretched those definitions in order to allow ministry to happen. Another obvious example is our UM Hymnal – how many of our congregations actually use the official hymnal, compared to how many adapt and use a variety of other types of music and even liturgy? No one seems ready to demand that every pastor and every congregation must use our official hymnal, even though our rules say so. I could name other examples where our Methodist "rules" are flexed for the good of our mission and ministry as determined in the local situation. Probably the largest example which we tend to overlook is the freedom we allow our Central Conferences outside of the U.S. to adapt much of the Book of Discipline to meet their unique cultural and regional settings. We simply do not hold them accountable to same sets of rules that we try to use in the Annual Conferences in the U.S.

So how truly "connectional" are we today? If by "connectional" we mean "uniformity" then that era has passed (if it ever existed). If by "connectional" we mean united in our mission of "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," then that kind of alliance and affinity has a real possibility of guiding our ministry and mission.


I have no idea whether or not the proposals from the Connectional Table will be received well by the 2016 General Conference. We seem to live in an era of polarization where no new ideas have much chance of being passed at General Conference. But it may be time to place accountability on many issues where is can count the most – even if that means continuing our trends toward localism.



Bishop Mike Coyner, President of the General Council on Finance and Administration
Bishop Coyner has begun his third term as the resident bishop of the Indiana Conference, having previously served the Dakotas from 1996-2004. He returns to the CT this quadrennium with GCFA, having served in 2005-2008 as president of GBOD. Bishop Mike and his spouse Marsha have two adult children and four grandchildren.

This post was reprinted with permission and can be found here: