The Bishops were requested to lead, and they did, and the General Conference voted to let them…eventually.
The Bishops Lead
On the 8th day of General Conference, they did something rather unique: they passed something that has wide, complicated implications for all of United Methodism.
They affirmed this proposal by the Bishops in The UMC. Here’s the full text and here’s the essential part:
NEXT STEPS We recommend that the General Conference defer all votes on human sexuality and refer this entire subject to a special Commission, named by the Council of Bishops, to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality. We continue to hear from many people on the debate over sexuality that our current Discipline contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional and global contexts. We will name such a Commission to include persons from every region of our UMC, and will include representation from differing perspectives on the debate. We commit to maintain an on-going dialogue with this Commission as they do their work, including clear objectives and outcomes. Should they complete their work in time for a called General Conference, then we will call a two- to three-day gathering before the 2020 General Conference. (We will consult with GCFA regarding cost-effective ways to hold that gathering.)
CONTINUING DISCUSSIONS We will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another – including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline. We will continue our conversation on this matter and report our progress to you and to the whole church.
The Short Version
So the supported proposal has three points.
- The Bishops will populate a Special Commission to craft a completely novel version of The UMC’s statements on human sexuality, with the results presented either to a special session of General Conference in 2018/2019, or the 2020 General Conference in Minnesota.
- All votes on General Conference items related to human sexuality are deferred to this Special Commission’s consideration. This will be further debated as to which petitions this applies to, and will likely be resolved tomorrow morning.
- In the interim, Bishops will seek to find ways to not cause harm through disciplinary actions, held in tension with the call to uphold the Discipline. Prayers!
The history of special commissions
The first point’s creation of a Special Commission has a checkered history in United Methodism related to LGBTQ inclusion:
- The 1972 Uniting Conference Commission recommended that LGBTQ persons had an affirming statement of LGBTQ persons. However, the floor of GC1972 changed it to add “we find the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.”
- The 1976 GC did not pass a study commission on human sexuality.
- The 1980 GC approved a study document on human sexuality for the use by annual conferences. The report was ultimately published by Discipleship Ministries in 1983 as a guide for local use.
- The 1988 GC commissioned a Comprehensive Study of LGBT inclusion and the commission recommended removing all prohibitive language in the Discipline. The 1992 GC debated but did not pass it.
- The 2008 GC studied the topic of LGBT inclusion and the legislative committee recommended a compromise legislation. A minority report that retained the prohibitions passed (which means it was outside the discernment process by the committee).
As you can see, every single time United Methodists officially have studied human sexuality, they have recommended a more graceful polity that includes LGBTQ inclusion. And every time, the General conference has not allowed it.
Therefore, we come to this again for either a 2018 Special GC, or the 2020 GC. This time, things may be different given the social context of the day, the expanded powers to do a complete rewrite, and other aspects. Or it may be a similar situation where the body makes major changes and the General Conference votes it down. Time will tell.
What happens now?
Presumedly, if this survives the rest of GC and a possible legal challenge by folks opposed to any study of LGBTQ inclusion, here’s what would happen:
- Who: The Special Commission would be selected by the Council of Bishops in some fashion and begin meeting at some point after 2016 GC.
- What: They would rewrite entire sections of the Social Principles and Ministry qualifications and abilities, along with any other areas of the petitions referred to it by 2016 GC.
- Who decides:
- If it is a 2018/2019 special called session of General Conference, then it will be decided by the 2016 General Conference delegates, or their reserve replacements due to retirement or death.
- If it is a report to the 2020 General Conference, then they will be decided by the newly elected delegates to that body in 2018/2019 Annual Conference sessions.
This is a very Methodist way of doing things: instead of winners and losers, the entire matter is referred to study…which may then result in winners and losers, but it will be determined over 2-3 years, not 10 days. There are a lot of moving pieces and considerations, but complicated methodical approaches to simple justice topics is what Methodists do best (or at least the most consistently).
This is the short version, and all is preliminary as things could change between now and Friday at 6:30 closing bell. But it’s a hopeful step towards change within United Methodism and its erroneous patchwork and not-at-all consistent ethic of human sexuality. May we become better than we are today.