The Joyful Journey continues

Bishop David Bard brings some aspirational actions taken by the 2019 Michigan Annual Conference into clearer focus, as the journey toward the 2020 UMC General Conference continues to move forward …

Emails and letters I’ve received in recent weeks, along with observations made to me by district superintendents, lead me to think that some of the actions of the 2019 Michigan Annual Conference need clarifying. 

There is confusion. Has the Michigan Conference broken away from the larger United Methodist Church? Have we said that we will not live by the rules approved at the special called session of the General Conference? Have we declared ourselves independent?           

The answer to all these is “no.” As many of you know, General Conference 2019 approved the Traditional Plan which reaffirmed traditional teachings on LGBTQ persons and how they will be included in the church. It added restrictions to some of the church’s judicial processes and mandated penalties for persons violating certain provisions of The Book of Discipline when they are found guilty at a church trial. The new provisions take effect on January 1, 2020. Also approved was legislation allowing congregations to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church, but voting irregularities at General Conference have put that legislation in doubt. The United Methodist Judicial Council will be reviewing that matter in October.

Our Michigan Annual Conference, in response to General Conference, passed resolutions that indicate we would like The United Methodist Church to move in a different direction, that the church as defined by the Traditional Plan does not reflect our understandings of Christian faith and how LGBTQ persons can be included in the church. These were aspirational resolutions, that is, they indicate a direction, an idea, a set of feelings. One of the resolutions passed will come to the Judicial Council for review at their spring meeting, as will a resolution approved at the clergy session. The Michigan Conference was not alone in approving such aspirational resolutions. Many United States Annual Conferences, as well as some Central Conferences in Western Europe, approved similar resolutions. Our resolutions do not mean that we will not live within the rules. They do not mean we have declared independence. They simply provide a sense of who we want to become as Michigan United Methodists.

Of course, not all want to move in the direction represented by these aspirational resolutions. I knew that at Annual Conference and I have heard that clearly since. Churches and pastors who hold traditional views remain part of the beautiful tapestry that is the Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church. In a number of letters and emails I’ve received, persons, whose own views are traditional, have asked how someone can think differently about LGBTQ inclusion and still take the Bible seriously. If you are curious about this, allow me to offer a couple of resources.

The late theologian William Placher in his book Jesus the Savior writes the following: “If we trust the Bible enough to think that it can tell us who Jesus was, and thereby who God is, then we cannot dismiss what the Bible says on other issues because we find it inconvenient or uncongenial.” With that in mind, Placher analyzed biblical passages about same-sex relationships and arrived at this conclusion. “Does Paul teach that homosexual intercourse is always sinful? For the reasons I have been indicating, I think that’s a question on which honest Christians can disagree.” If you are curious about such reasoning, I would also offer a brief video done by Bishop Richard Wilke, the United Methodist bishop most responsible for Disciple Bible Study. Click here to find it.

Again, I offer these resources in response to the questions I have been receiving about how anyone who takes the Bible seriously can view LGBTQ inclusion differently from traditional viewpoints. Let me also acknowledge that our United Methodist Church seems to have moved beyond a place where we are willing to say “that’s a question on which honest Christians can disagree.” We do not seem able to live together in the way we have been, and I believe there needs to be and will be a dramatic change in The United Methodist Church in the coming year. We need to create new space, new structure. We do not know what that will look like and a number of creative proposals have been submitted as legislation to be considered at General Conference 2020 in May in Minneapolis.

The United Methodist Church will be different. I got to thinking about that the other day as I was reading Anne Lamott’s reflections on death. “There is grief at the memorial service, but also gratitude for what the person brought to our lives, amazement at the details in the obituary…. Gratitude is seeing how someone changed your heart and quality of life, helped you become the good parts of who you are.” (Almost Everything, 116, 117)

The United Methodists Church has significant flaws and failures. Our history is littered with them, and they mar our present. Change is needed, and the kinds of changes under consideration will be a kind of death for The United Methodist Church as we have known it. Perhaps now is also a time when we might recount with gratitude how this church has also been part of changing our hearts and the quality of our lives and helped us become the good parts of who we are as people and as churches.

The United Methodist Church and the traditions it represents – Methodism from the Wesleys, the Evangelical and United Brethren traditions — have been remarkable in the way they have combined a warm-hearted, evangelical faith with concern for the wider society and its impact on people. Wesley invited people to faith in Jesus Christ, to grow in the love of Christ, and he wrote vigorous essays opposing slavery. The Methodist Episcopal Church was the first church ever to adopt a social creed. The 1908 creed called for an end to child labor, fair wages for workers, and worker safety, and committed the church “to manifest the life of the gospel in the world.” We are the church of the revival meeting and the social justice rally. We are the church of the church school and of educational institutions. We are the church that has touched each of our lives and has invited us to touch the world with God’s love.

I hope amid our deep conflict we might also give thanks for the way this church, which may be in its last months as we have known it, has been a conduit for God’s grace, God’s love and for the movement of God’s Spirit. Yet even now, as we remain together, we can keep doing what is best about us as United Methodists. We can continue to invite people to faith in Jesus Christ, a warm-hearted, deeply-felt, deeply-thought faith. We can continue to make a difference in our world, to manifest the life of the gospel. Not only can we do this, we ought to be doing this, for no matter what happens to our denomination, we remain the church of Jesus Christ, called to be in ministry with and for him. Even if “at present, we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror” (I Corinthians 13:12, Revised English Bible), that does not relieve us of the responsibility to live out our calling in Christ.

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