“I think we saw this as a historic moment and a critical moment for the bishops to speak to the church and to the world and to our General Conference,” says Bishop Julius Trimble of the request that came from the plenary floor of the General Conference asking the Council of Bishops to offer a statement about leadership, unity, and the future of the church, following a great deal of debate over legislation on the issue of human sexuality.
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The council had a long meeting that took them through the afternoon and into the evening as they considered their response. “The experience really was rooted in a great amount of humility around our commitment to be in prayer as a Council of Bishops – which we had already been doing prior to the historic request from the General Conference for leadership from the council on this matter of impasse. So we approached that in the meetings and individually, and certainly through our leadership, from the standpoint that any leadership we offer will have to be leadership rooted in prayer and in scripture,” he explains.
The council’s statement begins with the scriptural sentiment in Galatians emphasizing that in Jesus Christ we are all children of God through faith. It also discusses next steps for the church to re-address human sexuality, the need for unity, and the important role of prayer. “We have difficulty in providing legislative ways to have conversation, but it seems we’re always more receptive to listening and sharing if it begins with prayer,” asserts Bishop Trimble. “A time of recess for prayer and conversation, I think that’s a key. It’s been a key for me in Iowa, and I think it is key for our church.”
It is important, though, for that prayer and conversation to translate to action. “I realize that we can’t just pray and then go home. We still have to find ways to address the very difficult issues – and I don’t want to just keep using the word ‘issues,’ because we are talking about people’s lives – and longstanding difference in opinion and interpretation around what really constitutes full inclusion, and what really constitutes living in a covenantal community with the Book of Discipline.”
The conversations about living together in community, and how that is expressed in legislation, will be ongoing. The council’s statement doesn’t offer easy answers, but provides a plan for creating a commission to focus on this vital subject. “It’s basically an invitation for us to, rather than fight over 50-something pieces of legislation and vote with winners and losers, to look at all of those parts of the Book of Discipline, and all of those things that seem to keep us divided as this moment in history,” says the bishop. “There’s still work yet to be done, and it still remains to be seen how we’re going to faithfully live together in this interim time.”
In that interim, the council has provided guidance on steps to take. “I think that it’s important we get a diverse collection of people, not too large, that can be part of this commission that begins to create ways for people to have conversations and to look at all of those places in the Discipline which seem to drive us to this point of even talking about having schism or division in the church. And to find a way for us to, first and foremost, embrace a unity in Christ and then be open to the spirit of what may lead us of being a church in a different way,” he says.
“I’m very hopeful. I’m a prisoner of hope, if you will,” states Bishop Trimble, thinking about the church’s future. “I’m not a predictor of what might come out of this, but I do believe that this was a good decision on behalf of the Conference. I believe there’s still some concern, and the vote reflects maybe still a lack of full trust, because it wasn’t an overwhelming mandate – a relatively close vote,” he acknowledges.
“But there is the sense that we do want our bishops to lead, and I really felt humbled and affirmed as a bishop that the General Conference would turn to the Council of Bishops, recognizing that we do represent a very global, diverse body, and that when we meet, we’re probably the most diverse body of the United Methodist Church.”