I was invited to serve on the Commission on a Way Forward in the fall of 2016. I said No. I was asked again, and I said No. I did not want to expend extraordinary time and energy to attend meetings if the approach was to “solve a problem” that the church has been unable to resolve for forty years. Eventually, a couple colleagues spoke personally with me to encourage me to serve. What won me over was the Mission, Vision, and Scope statement that served as the basis of the Commission’s work. If this work was about multiplying the witness of the United Methodist Church by cultivating more contextual differentiation while maintaining as much unity as possible, then I believed this could be worthy service.
The list of others who agreed to serve on the commission contained 32 names plus the three bishops who worked as moderators, two translators, and three support staff who recorded notes, handled logistics, and helped with communication. I only knew eight of the commission members personally, some others I had met here and there, and a few I knew only by name.
Our first personal introductions took place by email as each of us shared a paragraph about why we had said Yes to serving on the commission. A line from my paragraph reads, “I said Yes because I believe the UMC offers a unique voice to the Christian witness that is able to reach people other branches of the Christian family cannot reach.” I did not say Yes to save an institution; I said Yes to help multiply the United Methodist witness.
We heard one another’s voices for the first time through a conference call. Each of us offered a one-minute prayer. The experience moved me more deeply than I expected. The names on the list in front of me became people—distinctive voices, a multitude of languages and regional accents, varying intensity and emotion, all displaying passion for Christ and a love of the United Methodist Church. In those brief moments, we received a glimpse of the graciousness, good humor, mutual encouragement, common spiritual grounding, and desire for the best and highest that would characterize our work. When the call ended, I sat quietly looking at the phone. These are people I want to meet, I thought. A mild sense of trepidation, perhaps of caution, was replaced by a feeling of anticipation. And of hope.
At the first meeting, I sat at the corner of the large rectangular arrangement of tables. A part of me still dreaded the inevitable meeting-like flow that grinds the spirit out of most task forces, committees, and boards. This felt different.
Every meeting began with a Commission member preaching. We thoroughly reviewed the Mission, Vision, and Scope, together and in small groups. We returned to that document at every gathering. It served as our statement of purpose, a clear articulation of what the Council of Bishops had asked us to do in response to the action of General Conference.
Working in small groups and then with the whole Commission, we captured attitudes and behaviors that were important in our conduct with one another. A small writing group organized these thoughts which were refined by the whole commission, then adopted, and then repeated and discussed again at nearly every meeting. This was our Covenant.
We covenanted to pray for one another, for the Commission, for the UMC, and for the mission of Christ; to treat one another with respect, assume the best in others, to speak the truth in love; to listen actively to others, to seek first to understand rather than to be understood, to ask for clarity, to be patient with one another; to maintain strict confidentiality, to avoid harmful speech toward or about one another, to refrain from blaming others, misrepresenting others, or using derogatory speech.
We read The Anatomy of Peace, a book that provided a language for us to name various tendencies we might find in ourselves or in the dynamics of our community. We learned about such ideas as having a heart of peace in contrast to a heart of war; and about collusion that develops when people get drawn into greater conflict that exacerbates differences, anger, and hostility.
The moderators planned the agendas for our 9 three-day gatherings. In addition to organizing our time together to include worship and prayer, the moderators left evenings open so that people could eat together, take evening walks, hang out in the hotel lobby, or otherwise talk through or mull over the topics of the day.
I cannot overstate the almost immediate sense of mutual respect and genuine affection that God granted us in our work together. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, people from across the global church and representing many varied theological perspectives laughed, prayed, and talked together without bunching up in affinity groups where everyone thinks the same. Genuine friendships were formed that will, I have no doubt, last for decades.
Not everything was easy, smooth, and pleasant. At times people expressed deep frustration, shared hurt, expressed intense differences of opinion and experience. Some sessions were fraught with tension. However, we understood that we were not together to change one another’s minds or theologies; we were working to figure out how to not only co-exist despite our differences, but to thrive in mutual support and in a connection that multiplies the United Methodist witness. No one ever left; everyone returned to the table time after time. We never gave up on one another.
Our final meeting was held in Nashville, and our last worship service took place in the Upper Room Chapel in the Discipleship Ministries building. The chancel of the chapel has a beautifully crafted wood carving of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, and the whole chapel itself replicates the architectural features of the upper room as depicted in his painting. We sang and prayed and received a message offered by one of the moderators.
Each of us was invited to find another person, any person, eventually every person, and to hold both their hands in ours while facing them, and to say the following: “Ann, if there is anything I have said or anything I have done that has hurt you or harmed you in any way, I ask you to forgive me.”
Ann would respond by saying, “I forgive you,” and then, “Robert, if there was anything I have done to hurt you or harm you in any way through what I have said or done, please forgive me.” Someone from the outside looking in would think they were seeing an intense and extended passing of the peace as people moved from one person to another, asking forgiveness, offering forgiveness, yearning for reconciliation, sharing God’s grace. Imagine nearly forty people doing this with one person after another, the embraces, the weeping, the laughter. It was uncomfortable and splendid, intense and releasing. It was healing.
I could not help but think of a hundred church councils, task forces, delegation meetings, and conferences that should have ended with a ritual such as this. “If I have done or said anything that has hurt you in any way, please forgive me…”
Our final act after serving communion to one another was to stand together and for each of us to say, “Friends, I now ask you to grant me release from the work of the commission as I return to my ministry as bishop of the Rio Texas Conference.” One by one, people asked for release from the responsibilities we had carried for fifteen months so that they could return to their ministries as laypersons, pastors, bishops, or conference leaders.
I do not know what the delegates at the Special Session of General Conference in 2019 will choose to do, which direction they will decide to take us. Plans developed by the Commission are imperfect, every one of them. But I do know that the Commission has shown, by its life together, a way forward that is fundamentally different from how conversations about LGBTQ persons have been held in the past. This way of working together displayed a deeply Wesleyan ethos best represented by someone who said, “I disagree with you, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to be in the same church together with you. In fact, I do not want to belong to a church that does not include you, even though we disagree about this and many other matters.”
There are problems to be solved and there are tensions to be managed. The Commission on a Way Forward has given us a glimpse of how the tension in the church can be managed for the good of multiplying the mission and witness of the United Methodist Church with mutual respect, grace, hard work, and prayer.
Yours in Christ,