California UMs react to same-sex ruling

7/15/2008

By Marta W. Aldrich
United Methodist News Service

On the heels of a California Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to same-gender unions, two United Methodist legislative bodies in California have approved gay-friendly statements that are stretching the denominational promise of “open hearts, open minds, open doors.”

The church’s California-Pacific Annual Conference, convening June 18-22 in Redlands, approved three measures that support same-gender couples entering into the marriage covenant. Each “encourages both congregations and pastors to welcome, embrace and provide spiritual nurture and pastoral care for these families,” according to a June 27 letter to the conference from Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, a Mississippi native, and other conference leaders.

That same week in Sacramento, the California-Nevada Annual Conference approved two measures on the same issue, including one that lists 67 retired United Methodist clergy in northern California who have offered to conduct same-gender marriage ceremonies. The resolution commends the pastors’ work in offering continued ministry.

The statements are the strongest yet on the issue by California United Methodists and have drawn cheers from gay rights advocates, who say the church and its pastors should extend to same-sex couples the same level of support it provides heterosexual couples.

Others say the conferences are on the verge of breaking a Scripturally based covenant with the rest of the 11.5 million-member worldwide denomination. The United Methodist Church, while affirming all people as persons “of sacred worth,” considers the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Its policy book, called the Book of Discipline, prohibits its pastors and churches from conducting ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions.

The denominational statements were affirmed last spring during split votes by General Conference, the church’s top legislative body. The assembly, which met April 23-May 2, convenes every four years and represents United Methodists worldwide.

That same month, California’s high court overturned a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, making California and Massachusetts the only U.S. states to allow gay couples to marry. California began to issue licenses June 16.

The actions by United Methodist leaders in southern California reflect the struggle by pastors and churches to minister to same-sex couples in the wake of actions by both the General Conference and the state’s high court, says the Rev. Frank Wulf, pastor of United University Church, a United Methodist/Presbyterian congregation in Los Angeles.

“This recognizes that our pastors and our churches are already struggling with these decisions,” said Wulf, who helped to author the resolutions. “It’s an attempt to honor the choices they make.”

One resolution reads in part: “While we recognize that we are governed by the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, we support those pastors who conscientiously respond to the needs of their parishes by celebrating same-gender marriages, and we envision compassion and understanding in any resulting disciplinary actions.”

The second resolution acknowledges the May 15 court decision, and the third opposes a November ballot initiative in California that would reverse the court ruling and amend the state constitution to bar gay marriage.

In northern California, the California-Nevada Conference voted to support both the court ruling and the pastoral alternative offered by some retired clergy.

Bishop Beverly Shamana, who presides over the conference, declined to comment on the action. Responding to an elder’s call, she has sent a ruling to the denomination’s top court on the question of how the conference can authorize and commend its clergy to conduct an act that might violate church law.

The Judicial Council is expected to consider her ruling when it convenes in October.

The latest developments in the California conferences trouble United Methodists who view such actions as a challenge to both Scriptural authority and the church’s covenant through its Book of Discipline.

“We’ve made it clear we adhere to biblical teaching and Christian tradition,” said the Rev. Eddie Fox, director of evangelism for the World Methodist Council. “Ninety-eight percent of Christians around the world believe marriage is between one man and one woman, so we’re not out of step in our ecumenical relationships with Christians around the world.”

The Rev. John McFarland was among California-Pacific members who questioned the wisdom of the body’s decisions and the processes being used to discern God’s voice. “This topic is not being debated based on Scripture,” said McFarland, pastor of Fountain Valley (Calif.) United Methodist Church. “It’s being debated primarily on experience without regard to tradition, reason and Scripture.”

Scripture, tradition, experience and reason are the four themes cited by Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, as illuminating the Christian faith.

“Even though wonderful and caring people practice same-sex behavior, the discussion does not end there. What concerns me is how far we’ve gone from trusting the Bible as the Word of God,” said McFarland.

He noted that 2 Timothy 3:16 says “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness.”

Proponents of conference actions suggest the issue is not biblical authority, but biblical interpretation.

“It is our UM tradition to interpret Scripture with attention to its context and purpose,” said the Rev. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett, pastor of Claremont (Calif.) UMC. “We create misunderstandings when we choose some texts to be understood as literal and others not,” she said.

“We once excluded women as clergy based on Scriptural authority; we once justified slave-holding based on Scripture. We’re doing the same thing now with regard to homosexuality.”