“By Your Spirit, make us one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at His heavenly banquet.” — from “The Great Thanksgiving” prayer in The United Methodist Hymnal
Last month this time, during the first week of April, our district and conference were engaged in a weeklong focus on praying for our United Methodist Church’s way forward; particularly praying for the Commission that has been established to make recommendations; and praying for the Judicial Council and its then impending ruling about a bishop elected in the Western Jurisdiction last summer, who is a spouse in a same-sex marriage.
Many of us have been praying much longer than that one week, and there are many more people beyond our district and conference who have been praying for these same concerns persistently and patiently for many months. I have included these concerns in my personal prayers every day since I invited us to all to make this our prayer last summer.
Now, the Judicial Council has made its decision. See the attached articles for more information—News Article—Council of Bishops Statement and for the decision itself—Judicial Council decision. It is a decision that has been criticized by those who think it did not go far enough and those who thought it went too far. It remains unclear what the final outcome will be regarding Bishop Karen Oliveto and her consecration as a bishop.
I am wondering how we should view this decision in light of our prayers.
On a parallel track, along with our prayers, many of us have been engaged in our bishop’s challenge to read the Bible in one year. We have been making our way through 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles recently. As I read these passages anew, I am reminded how often the scriptures describe events being impacted by the prayers of faithful persons. God hears our prayers and answers our prayers by being involved in the unfolding events of actual real-life people and circumstances. Couldn’t the Judicial Council decision be such an event, an answer to our prayers?
Could it be that God is guiding this process, step by step, as we have prayed for, and beseeched God to do? At the last General Conference, there was an unanticipated turn of events that allowed the UMC to maintain its unity in the face of great odds. This was an answer to prayer! The Commission and its approach of relational understanding, intense dialogue and extended deliberation were the results, allowing us an avenue possibly to find a way forward that testifies to our unity in Christ.
Now the Judicial Council has rendered a decision that almost miraculously finds a way to honor both sides of this debate. It upholds the concerns of those who want to see the covenanted commitments of the Book of Discipline upheld. And, it recognizes the concerns of those who want to respect the election of a bishop who embodies a deep yearning for expanded inclusiveness. No matter how the Council ruled, there was bound to be disagreement over the decision, but it could have been a much more divisive outcome. It could have been a different kind of decision, which would have been dismissive of one side or the other. It could have been a different kind of decision, which would have been more alienating toward one side or the other. Instead, the decision is a reasoned response, which does not give either side everything that it wants, but rather finds a place that has the potential to hold both sides together for the time being. Is this decision, in some mysterious way, an answer to our prayers?
Is this God’s providence, working here and now, in the real life of people and events, for unity among us, even though it comes with sharp disagreements and suffering? (See the Book of Acts for how this worked in the early church.)
I am not sure, but I hope so.
I know we all have our principles and convictions; together we as a denomination have our Social Principles. But history and life experience tells us that those principles can change. We can learn new things; we can have our eyes and hearts awakened to new sensitivities; we can experience realities that bring new light on issues we might have thought were settled; we can perceive truths in the scripture that we had earlier overlooked. Our principles can and do change.
Jesus teaches us to persist in prayer, especially when things are difficult. He also teaches us that God answers prayers, so that we should be alert to the signs of God’s answers as they come to and for us, not simply as internal messages but as unfolding events. Of course, not every event that unfolds is God’s answer to prayer; that is ridiculous. But that does not mean that there is never an event that is an answer to God’s prayer. It is for us to wonder, with love and praise, about how God is working here and now in the events we are seeing. Could it be that God is showing us something we may not really want to see? Could God be showing us (again), what we may be unwilling to acknowledge, even something that may call us to set aside our principles in order to adapt to God’s guidance?
I wonder. Please join me as we keep praying for the work of the Commission, and for God’s will to be done for the future of United Methodism, as one part of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, for all of creation.
And please keep true to the mission we have been given while all of these questions swirl in the background. There are many disciples of Jesus Christ who are yet to be awakened to His love and deployed as agents of that love in the transformation of the world.
Grace and Peace,