Surprising light for the United Methodist Church

January 7th, 2020

An 18th Century English hymn says:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises
With healing in his wings.

When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining
To cheer it after rain.

The surprise of a “season of clear shining” has come with a possible — though painful — way for The United Methodist Church to deal with the 48-year-long debate regarding human sexuality and the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church.

The Council of Bishops announced that an ad hoc group of diverse leaders came to unanimous agreement on a Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation. It’s offered in preparation for the General Conference that will meet in Minneapolis in May.

The mediation group included sixteen clergy, laity and bishops representing the conservative, centrist and progressive caucus groups within the UMC led by a professional mediator.

A key factor in the somewhat complex process defined in the Protocol is that The United Methodist Church will continue into the future with the expectation of becoming a full-inclusive church, while providing a fair and generous process for congregations and/or annual conferences to leave and form new expressions of the Methodist movement. It also calls for clergy charges and church trials regarding LGBTQ matters to be “held in abeyance” until after the next General Conference.

Bishop Ken Carter, presiding Bishop of the Florida Conference and President of the Council of Bishops, offered his insights on both the Protocol and the process here.

The beginning, not the end

The Protocol is the beginning, not the end, of the process that would need to be adopted by the General Conference and would take at least two-four years to accomplish. No one would say that it is “perfect” but it is what is currently “possible” for us to move through this conflict and pour our energies into the mission of “making discipleship of Jesus Christ for the transformation for the world.”

Sadly, we’ve been here before. In 1844 The Methodist Episcopal Church split between North and South over slavery. Though many of us have worked long and hard to hold the church together, it appears that we have come to this kind of irreconcilable difference again. 

But the work of the Holy Spirit continued and the divided church reunited in 1939 to form The Methodist Church which went on to unite with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form The United Methodist Church in 1968.

My reading of Acts tells me that the Holy Spirit’s idea of a good time is surprising the church. In Acts 15 the early church found a way to deal with disagreement regarding the Old Testament laws on circumcision so that the gospel could be shared with different people in different cultures. Perhaps the Spirit is surprising us again.

As a member of the leadership team of the Uniting Methodists movement, I am grateful for the light that surprises us in way the members of the mediation team came together around the Protocol and pray that the Spirit will continue to be at work in the process ahead. I also hope and pray for the day when a future generation of Methodists will reconcile and be reunited in another form of “united” Methodism.

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