Response to the Way Forward

Response to the Way Forward

Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton


As Bishops of The United Methodist Church, we affirm that WE ARE OF ONE HEART in our desire to discern the mind and will of Jesus Christ for our leadership and the church. In the Northeastern Jurisdiction and around the world we experience great diversity of thought and practice within The United Methodist Church. In partnership with Bishops from around the world, we will continue to lead collectively and individually to value and provide room for our diversity as United Methodists.

The Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops, May 4, 2018

Dear Friends and Colleagues in Christ,
In 2016, the General Conference asked the Bishops of our church to lead a process that would find a way forward for the church concerning the matter of human sexuality and, in particular, the full inclusion of LGBTQI persons in the church. That process led to the formation of “The Commission on the Way Forward” which has been at work in an intensive and intentional series of meetings of discernment. The Commission had a three-fold purpose:

  • Maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness across the globe.
  • Allow for as much contextual differentiation as possible.
  • Balance an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible.

The work of this Commission has now come to our Council of Bishops. Meeting in Chicago, we have just finished a week-long meeting to review and act upon the three separate plans that were developed by the Commission.

This was a week of amazing highs and humbling lows as we worked with intentionality and purpose. Our discernment was filled with struggle and revelation as we made serious attempts to bridge our differences and understand the vast and diverse cultures that are represented in our global church. Yet, in the end, we expressed overwhelming support for a plan to be submitted to the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference.
Meeting in a closed session, the Council of Bishops overwhelmingly supported the “One Church Plan” (below). We also agreed that all three plans considered by the Commission and the Bishops would be shared as a part of the report to the General Conference along with a historical narrative in order to provide a transparent look at the journey of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans. While the values of our global church are reflected in all three plans, and while there is support for each of the three plans within the Council, the strong majority of the Council of Bishops recommends the “One Church Plan” as the best way forward for our denomination.
Here’s a brief look at all three plans:

  1. The One Church Plan (Recommended)

Components of this plan include:

  • Allows for contextual expression.
  • Congregations will be able to decide on their marriage policies
  • Pastors will be able to determine who they will marry.
  • Annual Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry and Clergy Sessions will be able to determine the standards upon which someone is ordained.
  • This model uplifts mission without uniformity of practice.
  • It removes restrictive language from our current Book of Discipline.
  • It has an impulse of continuity and consistency.

This is the plan that is recommended by the Council of Bishops to the Special Session. It preserves our unity in the midst of our differences, allows for contextualization to be honored, and enables us to focus on our mission.

  1. The Traditionalist Plan (will be submitted as a part of the report)

Components of this plan include:

  • Strengthening the existing language of the current Book of Discipline.
  • Increased accountability of anyone that does not comply with the current Book of Discipline.

This plan is not being recommended by the Council.

  1. The Connectional Conference Plan (will be submitted as a part of the report)

Components of this plan include:

  • Creation of three “values-based” connectional conferences (traditional, centrist, and progressive in nature).
  • Adaptations to the Book of Discipline would be allowed in each connectional conference.
  • Annual Conferences and local churches could choose which values-based conference to align with.
  • Churches would align their practices to the theology and understanding established by the branch they choose.

This plan is not being recommended by the Council.

We in the Council of Bishops believe that the recommendation of the “One Church Plan” represents our best thinking and judgement around these critical and sensitive matters. This recommended plan will now be sent to the February 2019 Special General Conference delegates for their consideration. I wanted to offer this initial report to you as well for your review and thoughtful reflection. We also offer this work to you with the request that you intentionally and purposefully pray for our church as we enter into this season of deliberation and discernment.
The full report, including the recommended “One Church Plan,” the other two plans, the historical narrative, and other important information will be shared no later than July 8th, 2018. This is necessary in order to allow the report to be perfected, translated, and interpreted in the various native languages that make up our global United Methodist Church. If you would like to read the official press release concerning our work here is the link:
Throughout the month of May, I will be traveling to each of our six districts in the New York Annual Conference. The purpose of my visits will be to share with the exciting pieces of our Mission, Vision, and Core Values along with our work to align our ministry around those priorities. I will also be sharing more insight around this proposal of a way forward for the church that we love. I hope that you will make plans to join me when I am in your area.
Given the great diversity of thought and understanding that resides in our over twelve million United Methodists worldwide, I am fully aware that not everyone will be in agreement with the proposed plan for a way forward. Yet, regardless of your opinion on these matters, I pray that you will remain open and receptive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we continue our discernment and our work as a people of faith.
Over the years I have witnessed, affirmed, celebrated and been blessed by the diversity of theology and practice within our United Methodist Church. This has never been more true than during my time here in New York and Connecticut as your bishop. I feel so blessed to be able to serve in your midst. I believe that we reside in an Annual Conference that has the potential of modeling for the rest of the denomination that vital ministry is not dependent upon agreement as much as it is on the embracing of a common mission. I want you to know that I embrace my role as your bishop and as a bishop of the whole church. Regardless of individual opinions on matters like these, we must continue to work together for the unity of the church and the fulfillment of our mission to make disciples and change the world by God’s grace. I long for each of us to embrace our common mission with a heart of peace and will continue to make faithful attempts to model that heart of peace in your midst.
May God continue to inspire us and bless us as we continue our work to transform the world into the likeness of Christ.

The Journey Continues, . . .
Grace & Peace,
Thomas J. Bickerton
Resident Bishop