Called to discern new ways of relating

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) is currently meeting in St Louis, USA. This is a gathering of nearly 1,000 delegates, elected by annual conferences of the Methodist Churches from around the world. Half of the delegates are laity (non-clergy members), half are clergy. A description of this body can be found at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/general-conference

The Conference is meeting in Special Session, for the specific purpose of discussing (once again) human sexuality. There is a report from the Commission on the Way Forward, which specifically considers the way to maintain the unity of the church in the face of the polemical disagreements that have been occurring with regard to marrying people of the same gender.

There are a number of different proposals (called Plans) before the Conference, ranging from maintaining the status quo (and thus, not permitting marriages of same gender couples), through allowing local case-by-case decisions, to the removal of “all prohibitions that limit the role of homosexual people in the church”. There is a useful chart which provides an overview of the four main Plans that are under consideration at http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties_UGC/learn/documents/GC2019-Plan-comparison.pdf

The website of the UMC has an interesting discussion, from the experience in the USA, of three other denominations who have wrestled with the same issue, and documents the results of those discussions in each case.

The Episcopal Church has opened the marriage rite to same-sex couples as well as opposite-sex couples. There has been controversy about same gender couples in this church since 2003, when an openly gay person was consecrated as a Bishop (see https://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/03/us/openly-gay-man-is-made-a-bishop.html)

In 2018, its General Convention voted to give each minister the right to determine whether to marry couples of the same gender (see the report at https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2018/07/13/convention-lets-its-yes-be-yes-agreeing-to-give-church-full-access-to-trial-use-marriage-rites/)

The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson reported that “Although there were people within and outside The Episcopal Church who predicted a large schism after 2003, the actual number of members who left their congregations or dioceses was quite small. In those five dioceses where the bishop and others did leave, there were others who stayed and continued to move forward.”

The rate of decline in The Episcopal Church has slowed significantly in recent years. The denomination has 1.7 million members, in 6,447 congregations. The splinter group which was formed in 2009, over the matter of sexuality, has just a thousand congregations.

In 2009, the national Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America voted to allow pastors to bless same-sex unions and permit churches to accept clergy and lay leaders in “publicly accountable,” “monogamous” same-gender relationships. Decisions about such marriages are made locally by congregations, not by a centralised body. (There is a summary of the position, and a link to the full statement, at https://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Human-Sexuality)

There are 3.5 million members in 9,252 ECLA congregations. There have been about 750 congregations which have withdrawn from the ECLA over the past 20 years. However, the reasons for their departures relate, not only to debates over sexuality, but also to the 1999 agreement to enter into full communion with the Episcopal Church. (Closer relationships with fellow Christians of a slightly different denomination are obviously fraught with problems, for some people!)

The dissidents belong to two different Lutheran organisations, both of which are much smaller than the ECLA.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has dealt with two major issues regarding human sexuality in recent years. In 2011, the majority of presbyteries (regional bodies) ratified language that allows its ordaining bodies to ordain and/or install clergy and lay leaders who are in same-gender relationships on a case-by-case basis. The decision was actually simply to remove one clause—the requirement to live “in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” (see https://www.pcusa.org/news/2011/5/10/presbyterian-church-us-approves-change-ordination/)

In 2014, the denomination’s General Assembly voted to allow individual clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings and congregational leadership to decide whether to hold such services. The wording used was cautious, but the step was taken (see https://www.pcusa.org/news/2015/3/17/presbyterian-church-us-approves-marriage-amendment/)

The Presbyterian Church has about 1.4 million members in 9,304 congregations. There have been departures over the past few years, and some of these dissidents have formed the Evangelical Covenant Order for Presbyterians, with 335 congregations.

The Rev. Robina Winbush, PC(USA) ecumenical officer, commented that “The over 40-year-old struggle within the PC(USA) for full inclusion of Christians who understand themselves to be LGBTI+ has called us to discern in new ways who and how Christ is calling us to be in relationship to one another and with the wider world.

She noted that, “While the struggle was extremely painful, once it was decided, it has allowed us to move forward with mission and ministry in new ways. It has allowed many within the PC(USA) to be authentic in their Christian identity and has allowed us to be in relationships with many who may not have been freely welcomed previously.”

That sounds like a very positive situation. Let us hope that the United Methodist Church can make a decision that enables people in that denomination, also, to move forward in a reinvigorated and refreshed way.

*******

The statistics and quotations above have been drawn from https://www.umnews.org/en/news/lessons-from-other-denominational-divides

On the situation in the Uniting Church in Australia, see

https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/13/affirmations-we-can-make-together/

https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/05/so-what-just-happened-an-explainer-updated/

https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/07/30/marrying-same-gender-people-a-biblical-rationale/

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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