It’s time for a strategy of investment

9/19/2016

The United Methodist Church is divided over the issue of human sexuality and the denomination seems to be at a crossroads. There is considerable disagreement among laity, clergy, and even bishops, so The South Georgia Advocate asked Bishop Lawson Bryan to address the concerns many have about the issue and to share where he thinks The UMC is headed and how the South Georgia Conference should respond or lead.

By Bishop R. Lawson Bryan

As I said in my statement on the SEJ website as part of the episcopal nomination process, I believe the connectional system is strengthened when bishops uphold the “Book of Discipline;” teach orthodox Wesleyan theology; encourage churches and individual Methodists to think and act “immediately” in their worship, witness, and service; and intentionally build relationships of trust among clergy and laity.

Especially in times of division I think we need to be certain and draw encouragement from our own story. John Wesley faced many contentious situations and yet his very fidelity to the Bible and Christian tradition empowered him to relate effectively to those with whom he most seriously disagreed. He remained a winsome witness for Christ without violating his conscience. May what was alive in him be alive in us today.

The “Book of Discipline” expresses the covenant in which we are bound together as disciples of Jesus Christ. The Social Principles, within the “Book of Discipline,” represent a prayerful and thoughtful effort to be faithful to the scriptures and to the spirit of Christ in speaking to a wide variety of concerns. Paragraph 161, sections A through O, and paragraph 162.J address human sexuality in all its breadth and complexity. Some of the positions in these paragraphs have led to discussions in which United Methodists hold differing opinions. While acknowledging these sincere differences I am also aware that many have shown patience and self-control, which St. Paul named among the fruit of the Spirit.

Last May the 2016 General Conference asked the Council of Bishops to form a Commission on the Way Forward in order to lead our denomination to a resolution of these matters so that we focus on priorities such as vital congregations, principled Christian leaders, ministry with the poor, and new places for new people. Even though I realized the formation of this commission and the completion of its work could take a couple of years, still I left General Conference with a sense that we were ready to move toward resolving the impasse. I continue to believe this needs to happen and am glad that the formation of the commission is proceeding. There have been more than 300 nominations for persons to serve on the commission. Giving due consideration to each of these persons and what they might contribute to the commission is going to take extra time. But isn’t it good to have such a robust pool of nominees from which to draw?

I am part of a large group of United Methodists who are praying each morning for the executive committee of the Council of Bishops as they engage in the formation of the commission. This is of great significance to us all. It is to our advantage to have a commission that is well-equipped for the task we are asking them to undertake.

Since General Conference, however, we received word that the Western Jurisdiction has elected an openly gay clergyperson as a bishop. This action has been appealed to the Judicial Council, which is the appropriate body to rule on the validity of that election. The Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to act on this request at its meeting this fall. The Judicial Council has placed this matter on its docket for the spring meeting. Additional requests have now been made for the Judicial Council to reconsider and take it up at the fall meeting or at a special meeting before end of the year. It would be helpful to us all if the Judicial Council can find a way to get to this matter as soon as possible.

As we await the resolution of all this I want to remind us of the Pastoral Letter issued by the SEJ College of Bishops to United Methodists in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. The entire letter is available here. I draw your attention to these excerpts from the letter:

Your witness is making a difference in the lives of individuals and communities around the world. We write this pastoral letter with hope in Jesus Christ. Yet our hearts are heavy as we recognize that as a result of our denominational conflicts we stand at a fragile place. Our Christian witness is defined, not by an absence of conflict, but by how we act in our disagreements.

Recognizing that some Boards of Ordained Ministry and some Annual Conferences are acting in nonconformity to our church’s legislation about marriage and ordination standards the Pastoral Letter says: These actions are not within the bounds of our church’s polity. We, the Southeastern Jurisdictional College of Bishops, grieve over the deep divisions in our beloved United Methodist Church. We recognize the pain felt both by those advocating for and those opposing change. We also view the acts of nonconformity as a violation of our covenant and as divisive and disruptive. As a College of Bishops, we are fully committed to keeping the promises we made at our ordinations and consecrations, including:

  • shepherding all persons committed to our care;
  • leading our areas in mission, witness and service;
  • ordering the church, including administering processes for handling complaints about violations of our Book of Discipline that occur within our episcopal areas;
  • and seeking unity in Christ, including the work the General Conference requested the Council of Bishops do in relation to the Commission on Human Sexuality.
I join my colleagues in the SEJ College of Bishops in reaffirming the promises made at our ordination and consecration. As we anticipate the ruling of the Judicial Council and the work of the Commission on a Way Forward, I strongly encourage us all to give prolonged consideration to John Wesley’s sermon, “A Catholic Spirit.” Wesley outlines a practical, methodical approach for maintaining faithfulness to the scriptures while also offering an effective witness for Jesus Christ. This sermon can speak to us all if we will open our hearts and minds to it.

My own approach at this point can be characterized by reference to another matter of much discussion at the recent General Conference. The legislative committee on which I served considered petitions asking that The United Methodist Church divest in all investments in certain businesses or industries. There were also petitions in opposition to divestment. After thorough, thoughtful, and very respectful discussion, the committee recommended engagement rather than divestment as a general strategy for the witness of our church. When these petitions came to the floor of General Conference there was additional extended discussion. Eventually, the General Conference voted for engagement rather than divestment.  

So also, with respect to the matters immediately before us, I am not going to divest in the UMC but rather I am going to invest more than ever. I hope you will join me in a strategy of investment rather than divestment. Let’s invest our prayers, our presence, our giving, our serving, and our witness more than ever. Tough times can be the best times for those who are Alive Together in Christ. May it be so with us.