Against a backdrop of imminent separation, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church (The UMC) empowered the Council of Bishops to form a special commission to undertake consideration of “new forms and structures of relationship and through the complete examination and possible revision of relevant paragraphs in the Book of Discipline” around current policy that actively discriminates against LGBTQ persons.  The Commission on a Way Forward finished its first meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. 

As one of three openly gay members of a more than 30 member commission, and as executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, I want to share my experience and reflections with all who care about the inclusion of LGBTQ people and the well-being of The UMC.

I am pleased to report that many, if not all, Commission members understand the urgency of the task that is placed before us.  During the meeting, we talked at length about the purpose and the outcomes of the Commission and there is a deeply-held pragmatic desire on the part of the commission to structure a way forward for The UMC that will be approved by the special called General Conference of 2019.  Because of the Commission’s stated mission, vision, and scope of work, the Commission is not exploring ‘whether’ LGBTQ persons will be fully-included in the life of The UMC, but ‘how.’  Similarly, this Commission is not formed to talk about scriptural or theological justifications for LGBTQ exclusion or inclusion. 

Rather, the commission is committed to finding a way forward for a more inclusive church as it considers “contextual differentiation” and “new ways of being in relationship across cultures.”

We spent a large amount of time, in this first gathering, getting to know one another and beginning relationships so that we set ourselves up to accomplish the task given to us. I was pleased to see geographic, gender, racial, and cultural diversity within the membership of the Commission but dismayed and concerned by the lack of queer representation on the Commission. As so many of us know, one white lesbian and two white gay men do not represent the richness of the LGBTQ community. The Commission has heard this serious critique and is making arrangements to hear more from the queer community, particularly queer people of color, and non-US queer experience.  In this sense, the Commission understands that this process must remain adaptive.  To that end, we spent time discussing our covenant with one another, what we need to learn as a commission, and who the commission needs to listen to.

Given the racial and gender diversity represented within the commission, I was pleased to see a session, however brief, entitled, “Gender, Culture, and Race:  Preparing for Our Covenant” with presenters Dawn Hare (General Secretary, Commission on the Status and Role of Women), Erin Hawkins (General Secretary, Commission on Religion and Race), and Bishop David Yemba (Central Congo Episcopal Area).  In keeping with the church’s present policies toward LGBTQ persons, however, there was no attempt to seek counsel on the power differential inherent in the relationships between LGBTQ persons and others, not to mention in The UMC.

It’s a sad fact that the relationships being formed among Commission members is taking place against a backdrop of LGBTQ discrimination and it cannot help but affect the Commission’s perspective, its disposition, and its sensitivity toward LGBTQ persons. 

Nevertheless, I was delighted to get to know Methodists from the Philippines, Africa, Europe, and the US, and look forward to spending time with them and learning over the next year.

I am hopeful about the Commission’s potential outcomes and the resulting opportunity for General Conference approval. Given the urgency set before the commission, the limited focus of its work, and the commitment of such a broad set of leaders, I believe the commission has a unique opportunity to shape an inclusive future for LGBTQ persons in The UMC.

Meanwhile, we must continue witnessing to the gospel of Jesus by performing same-sex weddings and opening our churches to them, ordaining qualified queer candidates for ministry, and growing our movement of Reconciling United Methodists and Reconciling Churches. 

As the Commission continues its work over the next year, I can’t think of a better way to set the stage for General Conference 2019 and the inclusive outcomes of the Commission on a Way Forward than to fully commit ourselves, as Reconciling United Methodists, to the practices of Biblical Obedience. 

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Matt Berryman

Matt Berryman serves Reconciling Ministries Network as executive director. Prior to joining the staff of RMN, Matt spent three years in law school at the Florida Coastal School during which time he worked for churches, law firms, and LexisNexis as a legal editor.From 2002-2009, Matt served United Methodist congregations in the Jacksonville area of the Florida Conference.In addition to serving churches in the United Kingdom, he has led training events and workshops for The United Methodist Church, The Fund for Theological Education, Emory University, and the Fellowship of United Methodists for Music and Worship Arts.He received a B.A. from the University of South Carolina and a M.Div. from Emory University. Although he loves the heat and sunshine of Florida, he anticipates growing to love the charm of cold weather living in Illinois and the perfection of the snowflake!Matt loves an outdoor concert, a good idea, and his 14 year old son, Aidan.
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