UMNS photo by Mike DuBose
A Bishop's PrayerBishop Talbert played a key role in the Western Jurisdiction's adoption of "A Statement of Gospel Obedience."
As delegations prepared themselves for jurisdictional conference, many people anticipated that the Western Jurisdiction would respond in some way to the reluctance of the General Conference to acknowledge the diversity of opinion that exists on the topic of human sexuality. Since the defeat of the Hamilton-Slaughter Amendment (Click to read) some have hoped for and sensed a growing passion for a ‘Church in the West’ that embraces a more progressive, and some have said prophetic, vision for what the church could be.
Since the Western Jurisdictional Conference concluded there has been significant interest in the “A Statement of Biblical Obedience” petition that was passed overwhelmingly by the body. At the Western Jurisdictional Conference it was announced that Bishop Melvin Talbert will lead the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops in its Strategic Plan for Gospel Obedience. Given Bishop Talbert’s strong support of GLBTQ rights prior to and during the 2012 General Conference, progressives are likely to appreciate this choice. During that event, Talbert spoke to the “Love Your Neighbor Coalition” saying
that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in our Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience.”
It isn’t difficult to hear his influence upon the ‘Gospel Obedience’ statement and given his encouragement of obedience to God over “derogatory language and restrictive laws” (read here) the jurisdiction might expect bold action as it moves forward. Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño also expressed the WJ College of Bishop’s clear support for working toward a more inclusive church during the Episcopal Address. The text of The Statement of Gospel Obedience follows, along with the paragraph of The Book of Discipline that is referenced and the relevant portion of the Episcopal Address.
In response to our common belief that God’s grace and love is available to all persons, the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church states our belief that the United Methodist Church is in error on the subject of “homosexuality’s incompatibility with Christian teaching.”
We commend to our bishops, clergy, local churches and ministry settings, the challenge to operate as if the statement in Para. 161F does not exist, creating a church where all people are truly welcome.
The secretary of the Western Jurisdictional Conference will submit this statement of Gospel Obedience to the Jurisdictional College of Bishops, each Annual Conference, and chairpersons of Boards of Ordained Ministry for discussion and implementation.
What bold action might mean is yet to be determined. Critics of similar legislation passed by the Northeastern Jurisdiction (NEJ) argue that jurisdictional conferences are not empowered to take such action (link). The Northeast Jurisdiction Evangelical Connection (NEJEC) of United Methodists released a statement shortly after the NEJ’s vote challenging the authority of a jurisdictional conference “to speak in a manner contrary to the General Conference.” The NEJ Statement and a response from its evangelical caucus can be found below.
Be it Resolved, that the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference affirms its commitment to the civil and ecclesiastical rights and privileges of all persons, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, and declares its passionate opposition to continued distinctions of church law that restrict the rights and privileges of LGBT people in The United Methodist Church; and be it further
Resolved, that the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, acknowledging the grave pastoral crisis facing the church at all levels with regard to the pastoral care of LGBT people, acknowledge that clergy, lay persons and congregations encountering institutional discrimination that inhibits equal access to the means of grace for all persons may feel bound by conscience to offer the ministries and sacraments of the church to all persons on an equal basis. Those who so act according to conscience do so in a way that is consistent with the principles of this jurisdictional conference; and be it further
Resolved, that the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference acknowledge that leaders of the conferences that comprise our jurisdiction, including cabinet members, bishops and members of boards and agencies of the annual conference, while bound to the Book of Discipline, are also bound to exercise their consciences and are bound by Jesus’s commandment to stand with the marginalized and the oppressed in our midst when called upon to enforce unjust laws, policies and procedures to the detriment of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender individuals wishing to participate fully in the life of The United Methodist Church and those who minister faithfully to them; and be it further
Resolved, that the jurisdictional conference recognize that individuals who take punitive actions against others for offering the sacraments and rituals of the church on an equal basis do so contrary to the highest ideals of the United Methodist Church at the risk of causing grave harm to LGBT persons, their loved ones, their sisters and brothers in Christ, faithful clergy and the United Methodist Church itself.
Adopted by the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, July 19, 2012.
The Discipline does clearly delegate the role of speaking for the denomination to the General Conference. The jurisdictional conferences, while tasked with several roles including the election and assignment of bishops and defining the borders of Annual Conferences, has little authority to change the rules even when its leadership perceives that it is in the best interest of the mission field. Jurisdictions are not like Central Conferences, who are permitted by Paragraph 543.7 of the Book of Discipline to have power to make such changes and adaptations of the Book of Discipline as the special conditions and the mission of the church in the area require ….”
That said, the work of the jurisdictional conference could be of significant importance if its will is reflected by the actions of its college of bishops, annual conferences, appointive cabinets, boards of ordained ministry, clergy and lay people. While the General Conference does indeed speak for the denomination, these other groups are responsible for the action of the church. These groups have to decide how to live faithfully in a world where the ecclesial powers may be in conflict with a developing sense of God’s kin(g)dom that includes gay and lesbian people. These leaders will need to be the change agents — moving beyond hope to courageous action; willing to risk reputation for the mission field. They will also need to do so while remaining in dialogue with those within their annual conferences who have a different understanding of God’s vision for human sexuality.
Most church leaders will recognize this dynamic. Local churches are filled with people who know the right words and lead based on their ability to manipulate the rules and committees they serve on. But they also possess, albeit in more limited quantity, people who act from a place of deep affinity to the mission of that community — a love and sense of God’s vision. These are the saints who can move people and change hearts with a few words; those who embody discipleship, not membership.
The Rev. Jeremy Smith (First UMC, Portland, OR) offered these thoughts as a pastor who has just arrived in the West.
"Having served in three jurisdictions now, I feel there is value in naming that though we are united in mission we are not uniform in expression of that mission. The obvious fear is that we are going at it alone, individualistic in our beliefs while expecting to remain in a churchwide relationship. Thus, the Jurisdiction might be the best place for legislation that opens our mission field and opportunities for all to serve God in God’s churches. We are not going at it alone, but are serving our area of the country as faithfully as we know how.”
While it may be true that the jurisdiction has limited authority to change the rules of the games, so to speak, it was also apparent that it is united in its desire to be obedient to the Gospel for all, even if that puts it in conflict with a church that refuses to admit that diversity of opinion exists in its ranks. From the preaching of its Bishops to the legislative action it took, the Western Jurisdiction’s appreciation of diversity is deeply rooted and multifaceted. While it is likely that the actions of the Western Jurisdictional Conference will provoke a response from those in disagreement, one might also hope this embrace will lead to constructive conversations about the nature of the connection, the importance of the mission field, and of faithfulness to a God that is still at work in the world today.
Patrick Scriven is a husband who married well, a father of three amazing girls, and a seminary educated lay person working professionally in The United Methodist Church. Patrick serves the Pacific Northwest Conference as Director of Communications and Young People's Ministries.