I just returned from two gatherings that I believe will shape the future of Methodism for years to come. Taken together, they could mark a turn toward LGBTQ+ persons being fully recognized, included and honored in Methodism in the future, whatever form it takes. More than 900 people participated in one or both of the two events, including leaders from the Greater Northwest.
As you know, the actions of General Conference 2019 stirred up deep distress within The United Methodist Church. Many are asking: how do we live in a church that has adopted values and rules that we believe are not Christian? Do we stay and try to change the Church? Or is Jesus, who makes all things new, leading us to create a new expression of Methodism that is more faithful to the gospel? It feels like we are in a great season of sorting out how much diversity can remain united, and what are the limits beyond which some may have to leave.
The first gathering, Our Way FORWARD brought together justice-seeking communities to hear one another, recognize their shared oppression, and speak their call and commitment to a new Methodist movement that will act for justice inside the Church and in the world. As intended, people of color and LGBTQ+ United Methodists organized and led the event, with a deep commitment to creating a Church in “radical solidarity” with oppressed people.
Around 350 persons attended this event, with 19 of our fellow United Methodists present from the Greater Northwest Area. I was the only bishop present. Here’s what I experienced.
This gathering was church. It was church in the way it intentionally included many voices in the planning and leadership, and in the way it made space for people to be present in the fullness of their beings. It was church in the way the host congregation prepared, welcomed, fed, honored and protected participants. It was church in the depth, passion and beauty of worship. It was church in the prophetic proclamation of the liberating love of Jesus Christ, in the midst of misrepresentation, rejection and agony. It was church through shared sorrow and grief, the bold claim of baptism, the celebration of the goodness and fragility of God’s creation and gathering at the table of grace.
Many wore T-shirts bearing the baptismal promise of all United Methodists everywhere to: resist evil, injustice
In contrast to the fervent voices of some presenters, around tables I heard people saying:
- I want to be in the Church my parents attend in their conservative town. I don’t agree with them, but I want to be in the same Church.
- Even if I left the UMC, I would not be free of it. It is the community of my people. It made me who I am.
- I want gay babies born today to have a church that embraces and nurtures them. If I leave, they are still at risk.
- Black Methodists stayed in the Church through segregation, even when they were treated as second-class citizens. There can be strength in resistance.
As I left the gathering, I was deeply grateful for the honesty, urgency, and generosity of the community. And I felt confident that the leaders at this gathering and across our Church are ready and able to lead the Church into the future.
The second gathering, UMC NEXT gathered “centrists,” who were outraged at the actions of General Conference, together with progressives longing for real change. This broad coalition of United Methodists denounced the Traditional Plan and vowed to work toward a Church that stands and strives for justice and full inclusion.
But there was concern held by some leading up to this gathering.
- Is this the Adam Hamilton show?
- Will the outcome be pre-determined?
- Will all voices from the margins be heard?
I had my own questions about how participants were selected, and whether it would be a truly participatory process.
Nearly 30 people came from the Greater Northwest. Some are respected leaders. Others are newer and not as widely known. Some attended both events to ensure that UMC NEXT would benefit from the conversations and perspectives from FORWARD.
Together, participants helped craft a vision for a new, hopeful, inclusive, just Methodist movement based on four core commitments:
- To be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity that is anchored in scripture and informed by tradition, reason and experience as we live a life of personal piety and social holiness.
- To resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people, and to build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations and abilities.
- To reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and resist its implementation.
- To work to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the Book of Discipline regarding LGBTQ individuals. We affirm the sacred worth of LGBTQ persons, celebrate their gifts, and commit to being in ministry together.
These commitments are consistent with statements and actions taken by our Greater Northwest annual conferences for many years. I embrace these commitments and find them helpful as I lead United Methodists in the Northwest. I believe that inclusive community is the Jesus way and that it is the future of our Church.
At the same time, I intend to continue to honor all lay and clergy members and churches in the area I serve, whether they support or reject the actions of the recent General Conference. Over 23 years in Conference leadership, I have never discriminated against clergy or laity, based upon their theology. To the best of their ability, my cabinets have placed clergy in settings where their gifts and graces, as well as their theological perspectives, serve the needs of the community and congregation. I pledge to continue to lead in this way. I will also continue to try to keep you informed of possibilities and plans as they develop.
How will these gatherings affect you? Us? Participants from the Greater Northwest met yesterday before leaving Kansas City, to begin to plan together. There are no concrete plans at this time but these gatherings, and the coalitions that are being built, will help us in shaping what comes next. Before and during annual conferences we are considering conducting surveys or polls to get a “sense” of how United Methodists in Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest view the future of Methodism. Policies to guide processes of disaffiliation are being developed for churches that feel they must leave the denomination. In the next few weeks, the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest Annual Conference sessions will give us a chance to learn more, and to think and pray together about our future in the Northwest.
In this CrossOver year, we are finding our way, and making the road, by walking. Almighty God continues to find the goodness in each created being. Companion, Christ, walks with us, as guide and savior. The Holy Spirit continues to breathe life into each one of us moment by moment, with grace in every breath.
I’m grateful for each of you who has participated in Table Talks, held information sessions in your church, sought out and read information about all the many conversations that are unfolding across the church. I hope you are talking with people in your families, your home church, in nearby churches, and outside the church, about the critical challenge we face. I hope you are talking to people whose life experience is different from yours. Where two or three are gathered, God is present.
“I pray that… Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Ephesians 3: 15-19
Elaine JW Stanovsky