Until this weekend, one of the most frequent questions we got at Reconciling Ministries Network was, “Which of the models put forward by the Commission on a Way Forward (CoWF) does RMN support?” I suppose that will change a bit now that the bishops have decided to recommend the One Church Model. However, the question of models supported was followed by, “What is RMN’s strategy for influencing the outcome of General Conference 2019?” And that question was followed by, “How do Reconciling United Methodists (RUMs) and Reconciling Communities engage more effectively in the work?” This blog post addresses why RMN has not spoken out publicly on the models. The second and third questions will be the topics of multiple future blog posts and other communications. 

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RMN did not make a public comment about the models discussed by the CoWF and the Council of Bishops (CoB) because: 1. We wanted to give the CoWF and the CoB time to do their work, 2. None of the models had been released in final form (petition language), and 3. None of the options affirmed the lives of LGBTQ persons and their families. They fell short of our “mission” as an organization working for justice for LGBTQ people in The United Methodist Church.

Contrary to the implications in some of the reports on the bishops’ decision, the models considered do not reflect the values and perspectives of Methodists from across the connection. We are having this conversation because of the UMC’s inability to treat LGBTQ people with dignity and respect, welcoming them fully into the life of the church. An option was not considered that would have reflected that the church values and loves her LGBTQ members. 

The release of the statement from the CoB after their meeting in Chicago last week added an element of confusion that has still not officially been clarified. We understand that church and individuals in the Reconciling movement want to know where we stand, the strategy for 2019, and recommendations for individual churches. We were pleased to learn that of the options presented, the One Church Model was the one recommended by the CoB. Yet, we are disappointed that the Council is electing to include in the report to the church the petition language and rationale developed for the other two models. That information is irrelevant since the bishops are recommending the One Church Model. The job of the General Conference delegate is difficult enough without the confusion of information that has been considered and discarded.

We will release our official position on the One Church Model after we see and review the actual legislation being proposed. It would be irresponsible to make a public statement before we know the contents of the exact legislation. 

Based on our current understanding, the One Church Model removes the harmful language, prohibitions, and chargeable offenses, but also adds “contextualization.” The words used and the latitude given in that contextualization are important and relevant to this discussion. We understand that ministry is contextual. We all do it every day in our local churches as we make decisions on how to engage with and best serve our community. So, in and of itself, contextualization is a current reality in the UMC.

Legislated contextualization, however, is different and can be harmful. We must exercise extreme caution in considering it, as it can be discrimination with a different title. 

The risk it carries has much broader ramifications than the current debate. Many remember and are still harmed by similar struggles with sexism and racism in the church. This week the CoB announced the results of 2016 Constitutional Amendments. The failure of Amendments I and II to the UM Constitution because they did not get the votes to be ratified by the Annual Conferences is the only example we need to consider how contextualization might increase harm done in the church today.

As I understand it, the CoWF and/or the CoB has determined that “missional context” is the only way a proposal could be adopted by the General Conference in 2019. I don’t know the analysis that led them to make that determination, so I can’t agree or disagree with it. I hope that in considering contextualization, those writing the final petitions will find words that acknowledge the world-wide contexts of our church ministries and acknowledge that while we may have different understandings of sexuality, gender, gender identity, etc., our sanctuaries across the connection must be welcoming spaces for LGBTQ people.

While it falls short of the justice and and the fully inclusive church we seek, removing the harmful language and eliminating the prohibitions is a huge step forward. And, it provides the missional context many are seeking.

What no one seems to recognize, though, is that changes to the Book of Discipline to implement the described contextualization are not necessary. Provisions already exist that allow clergy to decide who to marry; and provisions already exist for conferences and Boards of Ordained Ministry to set the conference criteria for ordination. Simply removing the current discriminatory language and prohibitions provides enough room for contextualization. 

My prayers are for the people called United Methodists, our episcopal leaders, the General Conference delegates, and the church as we answer the questions surrounding the way forward. The limitations we put on God’s love and God’s calling on one’s life with our legalistic views of the world have to end. No matter your perspective on what is an acceptable outcome to General Conference 2019, our work as a movement will not be done until the lived experience of LGBTQ people across the connection is one of welcome and celebration. My hope and prayer for the UMC is that General Conference 2019 allows us to embark on a journey of working together in ministry as the diverse, equal, and beloved individuals God created each of us to be. None of us is less-than in God’s eyes. We should not be in the eyes of the church, either.

#BeTheWayForward

Jan Lawrence
Executive Director
Reconciling Ministries Network

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