The General Conference of The United Methodist Church held a special session February 23-26. The stated purpose “was to act on a report from the Commission on a Way Forward, authorized to examine paragraphs in The Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and to explore options to strengthen church unity.” (http://www.umc.org/topics/general-conference-2019-special-session)
The bishops of the UMC had met and several plans had been presented to the session. These related to issues of human sexuality and how a diverse global church (the UMC is a global church, not a communion of national churches like the Lutheran World Federation) can come to agreement.
By many accounts the session was contentious and pointed. Clear divisions were revealed and ultimately the general conference chose the “Traditional” plan by a margin of 438-384. This plan “affirms current language in the Book of Discipline, which bans ‘self-avowed and practicing’ gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions. It would also enforce those bans swiftly and strictly.” (https://www.umnews.org/en/news/court-docket-details-proposed-plans-for-umc)
The affirmation of the “Traditional” plan now leaves many questions for the future of the United Methodist Church. As an ELCA bishop I am concerned with the action of this church particularly as it is a full communion partner of our church body. Additionally, as a parish pastor I have had many Methodist colleagues and now UMC bishops that I deeply respected and consider friends today. I have been in prayer for these colleagues and for all in this partner church body.
As Lutherans we are people of the Law and Gospel. We know our own sinful nature and the unmerited grace that comes through Christ’s love. We proclaim the power of the incarnation that demonstrates God’s solidarity with all humanity. We also know of hard decisions as a church body and the costs. So how do we respond to this time of challenge?
I have struggled with this question time and again over the last few weeks as many have asked. So here are a few points I believe that can be helpful for us as ELCA in this time.
- Be respectful of UMC polity and constitutional procedures for decision making. Church bodies are human institutions and therefore must have human designed governance. This governance can and often is deeply flawed. But it is the way a community has agreed to be in relationship. In this way we live into Luther’s explanation of the 8th commandment and love our neighbor.
- Pray for your UMC neighbors, friends, and leaders. Wherever they are in response to this decision they are a church amid deep division and potential schism. This is painful, faith challenging, and they need our prayer.
- Pray for those in the LGBTQIA community who once again have been singled out for exclusion in the leadership of a church body and now face greater scrutiny and potential exclusion. For those who have friends in this community, particularly UMC friends in this community, reach out and offer a word of consolation, a reminder that they are deeply loved by God.
- Welcome without judgment those who might come to your door. There may be those who seek a time of peace and refuge in congregations that have chosen to be inclusive. If your community experiences such visits be gracious, listen first to their needs, respond with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The one who was emptied on the cross so all might have life.
Finally, be humble. We in the ELCA have experienced the pain that comes from church votes on who can and cannot be included in leadership. We know first hand the grief that comes and the questions of whether one should or should not stay in a body when it has made such a decision. We still deeply struggle with living, imperfectly, into our statements of welcome and inclusion.
I encourage all in NT-NL to be people of welcome to our UMC sisters and brothers in these days to come. To share with them the hope we have in Christ Jesus. To proclaim to them the power of God to overcome all division and to live as the baptized people of God.
Let us pray…
God of all, you have called us into communities of disciples of your son Jesus. Communities that over time have taken on names like Lutheran and Methodist. Adhering to the teaching and wisdom you have given saints who have gone before us. May we ever be grateful for the teachings we have received from those saints. May we also be ever challenged to seek your living and active word for us today. To welcome those who are too often unwelcomed, unloved. To see in all the beauty of your son, the life of the world. Jesus Christ our savior. Through the gift of faith given by the Holy Spirit. Amen.