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NCJ Conf takes bold steps forward

NCJ approves Covenant for BeLoved Community

In the spirit of Isaiah, the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, chief connectional officer of The UMC, reflects on the covenant made by the delegates to the North Central Jurisdictional Conference.

KENNETHA BIGHAM-TSAI
Co-chair, Michigan Conference Delegation

“The Lord God’s spirit is upon me because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted.” Isaiah 61:1a, Common English Bible 

“To bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted,” and to give hope to the church; that is what I believe we did, with the help and anointing of the Holy Spirit, at our recent special session of the jurisdictional conference for the NCJ (North Central Jurisdiction).

After hearing stories that brought close the pain of racism, discussing our needs for episcopal leadership, and engaging part of the Connectional Table’s process for discussing identity, mission, connectionalism, and vision, we approved a covenant entitled Covenant to Build BeLoved Community. We sought, through the covenant, to articulate who we are and where we wish to go as a jurisdiction. We declared in our covenant that ending racism is a key priority and, “a way of being as the body of Christ.”[1]

To be Christ’s disciples, standing against the sin of racism, should be a given. But we know that often, it is not. Indeed, we are at a time when racist rhetoric abounds, and stoking racial resentment and fear have become potent political weapons. There are indeed some Christians who have mistaken nationalism and white identity movements for Christ’s command to love; for Paul’s admonition that there is neither Jew nor Greek; and for Micah’s reminder of what the Lord has always required of us—to do justice, to love kindness and to walk in humility with God.

The anti-racism commitments that our jurisdiction made, through our covenant, stand against forces of injustice and oppression, stand with Scripture, and stand for People of Color in this jurisdiction who have had our hearts broken. As an African American woman, I have had my heart broken by the racism in society and in the church. Just to have that acknowledged by my siblings was succor for my soul. To have the jurisdiction make specific commitments to anti-racism work was a lift to my spirits. I am sure that I was not alone.

I heard equally in our covenant the binding up of the broken hearts of our LGBTQIA+ siblings, who have heard the message in various ways that their gifts for ministry were not wanted or that their marriages were somehow not worthy of the blessings of the church. I heard the binding up of their hearts in the covenant’s affirmation, “LGBTQIA+ clergy and laity are a gift to the Church. We implore all in the NCJ to do no harm and to create a culture in which abundance and diversity can be celebrated and lived.”[2]

This call to do no harm is not just about the past, but about our present and our future. It is crucial for our life going forward, that we stop the harm of charges being brought against our siblings and their allies and engage fully in the work of healing and imagining ministry together.

The adoption of a Narrative for a Continuing United Methodist Church, from our bishops, enhanced many of the commitments that were highlighted in our covenant. The narrative, passed overwhelmingly by the Council of Bishops at its November meeting, was introduced by Bishop Laurie Haller, on behalf of the NCJ College. It recognized the diversity of our church and committed to a continuing United Methodist Church that includes all people. The bishops’ narrative noted,  “We are a holy communion of different races, ethnicities, cultures, and perspectives united by the Holy Spirit, driven by the mission of Christ and bearing the good news of unmerited grace.” Such a church, they said, is gathered around one table. Christ commands us “…to make space for one another, appreciate one another, and look for Christ in each other.”[3]

Even as we sought to see the Christ in each other (our conference was mostly without rancor), we acknowledged that not everyone wishes to sit around the same denominational table. As such, we affirmed the Call to Grace, a grassroots call to allow our siblings who wish to leave and start other expressions of Methodism to do so with grace. We also recognized the need for contextual ministry within the continuing United Methodist Church and affirmed regionalization proposals offered by the Christmas Covenant and the Connectional Table’s U.S. Regional Conference legislation. We also envisioned the spiritual, pastoral, and transformative leadership we need from our bishops in the NCJ.  

The commitments of our covenant were couched in the liturgy of our baptism. This is liturgy that we echo in our membership vows. Saying it is like speaking the code of our DNA. It is what defines our identity as Christians, as United Methodists, and as the North Central Jurisdiction. We are a people who renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and reject the evil powers of this world, who claim God’s freedom and power to resist evil in all its forms, and who put our trust in the grace of the Lord in union with Christ’s people from all nations and races.[4]

We are The United Methodist Church proclaiming the good news and, yes, binding up the brokenhearted. Our ability, as delegates of the NCJ and leaders of our church, to articulate that so clearly in our future commitments gives me hope for the whole church–that The United Methodist Church, as a whole, can go forward boldly as beloved community knowing that God’s favor is with us.

Notes:

[1] Covenant to Build BeLoved Community, as adopted by the North Central Jurisdiction
[2] Covenant to Build BeLoved Community, as adopted by the North Central Jurisdiction
[3] Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church, as adopted at the November 2021 meeting of the COB
[4] From UMC baptismal vows, paraphrase.

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