News broke this week about plans made by the executive committee of the Council of Bishops for the Commission on a Way Forward, the group tasked with carrying out the bishops' plan approved by General Conference to try to find a resolution to highly contentious debates on homosexuality in the UMC. You can read stories on these plans from both UMNS and the United Methodist Reporter. The press release by the Council of Bishops is also available online. In short, plans call for a commission of 20-25 people chosen by the bishops by Aug. 31 to spend the next 18 months preparing for a likely called General Conference in 2018. The Council of Bishops will update the church on the work of the commission every 4-6 weeks.
The work of the commission comes at a time when the possibility of schism over issues related to sexuality seems quite real. There are three important things to keep in mind, however, when assessing the significance of the commission for the future of the denomination.
1. The commission is not just about sexuality but about structures.
Debates over sexuality are certainly the immediate cause that led to the formation of the commission. Yet, as the bishops acknowledged in their statement, "The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition."
Hence, the scope of the commission is significant: "Therefore, we should consider new ways of being in relationship across cultures and jurisdictions, in understandings of episcopacy, in contextual definitions of autonomy for annual conferences, and in the design and purpose of the apportionment. In reflection on the two matters of unity and human sexuality, we will fulfill our directive by considering 'new forms and structures' of relationship and through the 'complete examination and possible revision' of relevant paragraphs in the Book of Discipline. We will give consideration to greater freedom and flexibility to a future United Methodist Church that will redefine our present connectionality, which is showing signs of brokenness."
Phrasing the scope this way seems to be an indication by the bishops that everything about how the denomination is currently structured is on the table. Certainly, this is an indication of the severity of the situation in which the UMC finds itself. Yet despite the broad mandate, there are reasons to think that the proposals by the commission may be less than completely revolutionary. Previous study commissions authorized by General Conference have felt beholden to Wesleyan frameworks of understanding the church and its ministry and the accumulated weight of Methodist tradition. That's not to say that the commission might not propose significant changes, but just to note that tradition will constrain the range of options, even given a broad scope of possibility.
2. There is other significant work going on regarding the future of UMC structures, but the various components of that work will not necessarily be coordinated.
Darryl Stephens has provided this helpful rundown of the various referrals by General Conference of work related to the global structures and forms of ministry that characterize the UMC. In Dr. Stephens' list, the Commission on a Way Forward is only one of nine separate efforts to reshape global structures. According to Dr. Stephens, these nine referrals involve seven existing entities and four new ones, including the Commission on a Way Forward.
The degree of communication or collaboration between these nine separate efforts remains to be seen. Certainly some could proceed without much collaboration (the study of US jurisdictions and the global Social Principles, perhaps), but at some level these are all grappling with parts of a larger issue: What does it mean for the UMC to be a "global church" that operates in very different local contexts while preserving some form of connectionalism?
The Commission on a Way Forward has the potential to be influenced by the work of these other groups (though timing may not allow that completely), to ignore that work and proceed entirely on its own, to preempt that work (by proposing its own solutions or by providing for the division of the denomination), or to defer to these groups and leave aspects of reforming the church's structures to them. It is hard to say which approach it will take, but it will be interesting to see.
3. Culture is a significant factor in all discussions about church structures, theology, and sexuality in a "global" denomination.
Robert Hunt recently made this point in a series of articles on this blog (Parts , . and ). Simply put, while God may be outside human culture, humans are not, and thus views on church structures, theological stances, and understandings of sexuality are all influenced though not wholly determined by culture. The Commission on a Way Forward would do well to recognize this factor.
Therefore, it would behoove the commission to benefit from the insights on the role of culture in Christianity provided by the discipline of missiology. To that end, if you are so moved, write your local bishop and suggest that she or he include a missiologist on the list of names she/he submits for the commission. Then stayed tuned for Aug. 31st to find out who is appointed!