By Pam Ekey
Remember the mission of the church as we consider how to move forward as a United Methodist Church, Bishop Bob Farr encouraged the Missouri Annual Conference. Friday afternoon he presented an update on recommendations made by the Commission on the Way Forward and the called special session of General Conference in February 2019. The special General Conference will meet in St. Louis in February 2019 to determine how the United Methodist Church can remain together in spite of deep theological differences over human sexuality. The real concern is how we can remain a spiritual community in the face of deep theological differences, he said.
After approximately a year of meetings and study, the Commission on the Way Forward submitted three models to the Council of Bishops. The Traditional Model would continue the current policies in the Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality, but would increase accountability. The One Church Model would allow each annual conference to determine whether it would ordain self-avowed homosexual persons and would allow each local church and pastor to determine whether same-sex marriages would be performed. The Conference Connectional Model would create three central conferences (traditional, progressive and contextual) and then allow each annual conference to decide which central conference they wish to affiliate with, based on conference theology. Then each church would choose whether to remain in their annual conference or affiliate with another conference, based on their theology. The Council of Bishops has submitted all three proposals to the General Conference and has recommended the One Church Model.
The report from the Commission on the Way Forward is being translated into five different languages and will be released in July.
Bishop Farr said, in his opinion, the issues are largely technical. They concern paragraph 161.g (which says homosexuality is incompatible with the teachings of the Bible), same-sex marriage, and ordination of self-avowed homosexual persons. The Missouri Conference delegation will not know what exact proposal they will vote on until the last day of the special General Conference. In addition to the recommendations of the Council of Bishops, it is expected that other proposals and amendments will be submitted to the Special General Conference session. For that reason, it is difficult to talk about specifics of the proposals when the specifics are unknown.
From a missional standpoint, Bishop Farr said, there are broader issues that need to be considered: First is the ability of the church to reach LGBTQ persons and their allies and include them in the church. Second is disagreement on interpretation of scripture related to same-sex relationships. Third, people are leaving our churches. He said people on all sides of the issue are leaving the church, not only over this issue but for a variety of reasons. “Everybody is feeling the pressure over who we are losing or who we might lose,” he said.
The bishop pointed out that the church has been trying to solve the issue of human sexuality at every General Conference since 1972. He quoted Albert Einstein, who said, we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. A new approach to the issue was needed. At the 2016 General Conference, the Council of Bishops were authorized to form the Commission on the Way Forward to consider how the United Methodist Church can remain together in the face of deep theological differences. If a proposal is adopted at the 2019 General Conference, it then will go back to every Annual Conference for a vote.
Bishop Farr said that, regardless of what proposal is adopted at the General Conference, it will not please everyone. “There is not going to be a full solution,” he said, “There is no way somebody will not be deeply disappointed.” That is because the United Methodist Church is a worldwide organization with many languages and cultures.
“We are trying to solve our theological differences through polity,” Bishop Farr said. “I’ve thought for a long time the United Methodist Church needed reorganization. I did not think it would happen through the issue of human sexuality,” he added.
At the heart of the issue is contextualization. The Methodist tradition has long disagreed on issues of faith. “Historically we’ve solved our theological differences through contextualization,” he said. In his travels across Missouri, Bishop, Farr has noted contextual differences in every congregation. Every church adapts its worship to reflect the theology and tradition of the local congregation. Some churches use a hymn book, some do not. Some preachers wear a robe, others do not. “One thing I have noticed is that none of you do communion alike,” he said. “Even though we have a liturgy, it is printed in a book some of you feel lead to contextualize.”
When he considers the future of the United Methodist Church, Farr said his focus is on how to keep the spiritual community together. “We need to focus on our mission. We need to focus on our vision, and we need to focus on our expectations,” he said. As a church we are held together by our mission and our vision.
“Over the years, people have asked me where I stand on this issue,” he said. “I respond that it doesn’t matter what I think.” His focus is on making disciples. “I have to be a bishop to all, not just to some. I see people of all theological persuasions who are bringing people to Christ.” The Bishop became visibly emotional declaring he will barnstorm every congregation in the state if necessary to keep the church together.