Reconciling United Methodists of North Carolina

a part of the Reconciling Ministries Network

Bishops Avoid Extremes in Unity Discussions

Council of Bishops President Bruce Ough
Council of Bishops President Bruce Ough delivers a sermon at a Council of Bishops special meeting. Photo by Maidstone Mulenga.

by Cynthia B. Astle
February 27, 2018

For now, it appears that the Council of Bishops is focusing its unity discussions on the “contextualization” version of three models submitted to it by the Commission on a Way Forward: remove language declaring homosexual practice “incompatible” with Christian teaching from the Book of Discipline.

The other two options – an “accountability” model that would retain the “incompatible” language and strengthen enforcement for violations, and the creation of theologically diverse branches under a single authority – hadn’t been discussed in detail through the afternoon of Feb. 27, according to retired Bishop William B. Lewis.

The Council of Bishops met behind closed doors Feb. 25-28 in Dallas to discuss the Way Forward models in preparation for deciding in May which version to forward for the 2019 General Conference. The deadline to submit legislation is July 8.

In a sermon that doubled as a presidential address Feb. 25, Council President Bishop Bruce Ough urged his brother and sister bishops “to be open to Christ” changing their minds as they encountered disagreements in their discussion of the updated report from the Commission on a Way Forward.

“Let’s help our people empty themselves of the need to control one another,” Bishop Ough was quoted in a Council press release. “Let’s help our people empty themselves of their fear of the future and their fear of a changed church. Let’s help our people empty themselves of their obsession for security. Let’s not hinder or harm one another. Let’s take our people off the map. Let’s be open to Christ changing our minds.”

Bishop Lewis, who led the Dakotas Area in the mid-1990s, told United Methodist Insight that the Feb. 27 morning session was “the most intense” discussion to date among the bishops. Throughout the discussion, “straw votes” tested the perspectives of 65 active and 45 retired bishops on what Bishop Lewis termed “Option B.” He said the Council delved deeply into the details of Option B, including ways to allow those who disagree with removing the “incompatible” language to leave the denomination.

“When the retired bishops were included, the votes would show 61 to 39 percent in favor,” Bishop Lewis said. “When only the active bishops voted, the margin was much closer, around 55 percent in favor and 45 percent against.”

As for the other options, “those are off the table for now,” Bishop Lewis. However, he added, that doesn’t mean they won’t be resurrected, either in the Council’s next round of discussion, or in other legislation presented for the special General Conference scheduled Feb. 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, Mo.

According to a Jan. 22 report by Heather Hahn of United Methodist News Service, the three options presented by the Commission on a Way Forward are:

  • “Affirm the current Book of Discipline language and place a high value on accountability. The church policy book says the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching” and lists officiating at a same-gender union or being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member as chargeable offenses under church law.” (Bishop Lewis terms this “Option A.”)
  • “Remove restrictive language and place a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.” (Bishop Lewis terms this “Option B,” the model currently under discussion.)
  • “Create multiple branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice. This model would maintain shared doctrine and services and one Council of Bishops.” (Bishop Lewis terms this “Option C.”)

According to Ms. Hahn’s report, ”all three models come with a way for churches to exit the denomination.”

Bishop Lewis elaborated that Council discussions have harked back to what older bishops recall as a time of “coming together” in 1968, when the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church merged to form The United Methodist Church. The UMC came into being during an inspiring environment of tearing down divisions among Christians that was shaped by ecumenical influences such as Vatican II and the Consultation on Church Union.

“Now it seems like we’re coming apart, and that’s what we want to avoid,” Bishop Lewis said.

What the Council of Bishops hadn’t discussed by the end of its morning session Feb. 27 were the political ramifications of removing the “incompatible” language from the Discipline. Bishop Lewis told Insight that he felt compelled during the morning’s discussion to “name the elephant in the room” – the influence of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the Good News movement, and the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

“The WCA and Good News are being funded by the IRD, which is funded by right-wing billionaires like Scaife, the Kochs and Ahmanson,” Bishop Lewis said. “They’re using the same political strategy that the fundamentalists used to take over the Southern Baptist Convention. They want to take over The United Methodist Church, but barring that, they want to break us up.

“That’s why this debate has gone on since 1972 [when the “incompatible” language was added to the Book of Discipline by General Conference],” the bishop said. “The conservatives are using homosexuality as their ‘presenting issue’ to take over our church with a fundamentalist theology.”

 

Bishop Lewis was referring to several documented backers of conservative political and religious movements: the late Richard Mellon Scaife, who died in 2014 but whose family foundations continue to fund conservative organizations; the brothers Charles and David Koch, who channel millions to conservative groups through their family foundations; and Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr., whose foundation funded the anti-LGBTQ Proposition 8 in California, among other causes.

Bishop Lewis’ allegations of conservative funding of IRD were confirmed by several news accounts since the early 2000s, including articles by The New York Times, Political Research Associates, the Washington Post, and the newsletter Talk to Action, and books such as Steven Tipton’s “Public Pulpits: Methodists and Mainline Churches in the Moral Argument of Public Life” (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

A more detailed report from their discussions is expected from the Council of Bishops at the conclusion of their Dallas meeting. Some active bishops already have announced plans to hold information sessions with clergy and laypeople in their areas on the results of the Dallas conclave.

Cynthia B. Astle serves as Editor of United Methodist Insight, which she founded in 2011.