On Thursday, November 17, 2022, and Friday, November 18, 2022, delegates to the Central Conference of the UMC in Central and Southern Europe, meeting in Basel from November 16-20, 2022, considered a proposal developed by a Round Table. After lengthy, animated and at times emotional discussions and various additional loops, its proposals were accepted by a large majority.
Can we still be church together? - After the decisions of the extraordinary General Conference 2019, in which the traditional church positions had been affirmed with a narrow majority in dealing with persons living homosexuality openly, and their enforcement had been forced, the question was on the table. This was also true for the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe (CC CSE).
Methodists living in the east and southeast of the CC CSE had been relieved at the time that their position had been affirmed. Others had been dismayed and saddened to learn that the church had not only not allowed any opening, but had even issued stricter rules. Instead of resolving or at least defusing the conflict that had existed for decades, the resolutions had actually exacerbated it.
At the level of the CC CSE, a Round Table was created to search for solutions in the area of Central and Southern Europe and to draft a common vision for the mission of the Church. All parts of the UMC belonging to the Central Conference were invited to participate. Finally, representatives from Switzerland, France, Hungary, North Macedonia, Poland, Serbia, Czechia and Austria participated.
The co-presidents, Andrzei Malicki from Poland and Stefan Schröckenfuchs from Austria, jointly presented the result that the group had worked out in ten meetings and intensive consultations. The report contained principles and concrete proposals on how the UMC in the countries of the CC CSE can deal with each other and move forward together despite differences of opinion on human sexuality.
What was obvious was that despite all the differences, trusting relationships had developed among the members of the Round Table and mutual understanding had grown. With a long applause the delegates thanked the members for their great work.
"Called to Unity" is the title of the report. "We want to live in unity, even if we do not agree on all issues," is the first of a whole series of fundamental statements. The report goes on to state that in matters of human sexuality, each country should follow local convictions and laws, and no external pressure should be exerted. This also does not apply in the case that a future General Conference should decide on a more liberal regulation. For concrete implementation, the text recommends adjustments in the part of the Church Order that the CC CSE may change, as well as footnotes to texts that cannot be changed, explaining the position of the CC CSE.
Delegates discussed the report intensively in groups on Thursday. Fears and concerns were expressed, understanding for other positions was not everywhere. Less so, at any rate, than among the members of the Round Table, who had a longer joint process behind them. The fact that less relationships had been cultivated within the Central Conference in recent years - also due to the pandemic - now proved to be a disadvantage.
However, hopes were also mentioned, especially that the Church would finally be able to turn its attention to more important issues again. A "vote" in the form of dots on a chart showed that probably a majority of conference members would agree with the report, though some were not convinced that it would settle the conflict.
Following this discussion of the issue, various people expressed concerns about simply proceeding to a vote now. It would take more time to bring the people in the individual annual conferences (synods) along on the common path. Thereupon, on Friday, the delegations were again given the opportunity to exchange ideas among themselves. From the delegations of the more eastern countries came the demand for more time before a decision. In addition, the draft should be amended. The possibility to change the understanding of marriage should be deleted from the text.
For the other delegates, a majority of whom were from Switzerland and Austria, the proposal to amend the text again was difficult. "The text contains the maximum possible. If you change something in it, it gets out of balance," Stefan Schröckenfuchs pointed out. On the other hand, there seemed to be a willingness to grant another year's time if the time for persuasion was actually used in the individual annual conferences.
Amendments wanted, on the one hand, to make further adjustments to the text or, on the other hand, to adopt only the actual document "Called to Unity" and have the rest of the text decided by the Executive Committee only in a year's time. Both proposals were rejected. Therefore, in the end, the original motion was voted on in a secret ballot. This was clearly adopted by 53 votes to 11.
Christine Schneider, Freienstein / Sigmar Friedrich, Zurich
Photo: The co-moderators of the Round Table – Stefan Schröckenfuchs, AT (left), Andrzej Malicki, PL (right)