Just in case you don’t speak Methodist, the way we work is pretty simple: every four years both lay and clergy delegates cluster in one of five regional gatherings known as Jurisdictional Conferences for the principal purpose of electing new bishops to replace those who are retiring. As is customary, thus, those meetings took place last week and the result was that fifteen new bishops, including seven women, were chosen to serve as presiding officers of our church across America.
One of those elections, however, has unfortunately created quite a controversy, at least insofar as maintaining our unity as a denomination in these challenging times. For against the plain directives of our Book of Discipline, some eighty-eight delegates to the Western Jurisdiction, the smallest of our five regional bodies, elected to the office of bishop a self-avowed practicing lesbian who is married to another woman. And irrespective of one’s views on the question of inclusivity, that act of ecclesial disobedience has stirred up a true crisis within our denomination.
To be sure, at virtually the same moment she was elected late Friday evening the South Central Jurisdictional Conference (of which I was a part) passed a resolution asking for a declaratory decision from our Judicial Council, the highest court of the UMC, as to the legality of the election, and that response will be forthcoming in the months ahead. Likewise our Council of Bishops is meeting this week to discuss how to move forward given this very real challenge to our church’s covenantal connection.
Already, though, the specter of formal division has been raised in many quarters, with some saying that the differences between us are now virtually irreconcilable. And sadly enough, given not only the election in the West, but the actions of several annual conferences to act in “non-compliance” with the provisions in our Discipline, that may be true. But I believe that until our ecclesiastical court has ruled on the issue, and the special commission authorized by the General Conference to recommend a way forward has been formed and allowed to do its work, that the faithful congregations of our twelve million member global church should continue to join together to carry out the valuable kingdom work that God still has for us to do in this world.
Accordingly, even while recognizing that we are not all of one mind with respect to the issues of human sexuality, my hope is that we may find a way to both respect one another and to respect the mutual covenant which binds the spiritual heirs of John Wesley as one. Indeed, it is said that his final words were simply, “Best of all… God is with us.” And because that is yet the case, perhaps it is true that the best days of our church may yet lay ahead of us, as well, whether we eventually separate into two distinct bodies or remain as one.
We’re just all going to need to be very careful indeed with our words and actions as we navigate our way in the days and months ahead, sisters and brothers. For no matter how fluent or not you may be in speaking Methodist there is simply no substitute for knowing how to speak the truth in love.