Clergy, laity push bishops on gay union ban

9/16/2011

A UMNS Report
By Heather Hahn*
Sept. 16, 2011

More than 300 United Methodist clergy and 500 laity have signed letters urging the Council of Bishops to take a public stand supporting the denomination’s position on marriage and homosexuality.

The letters respond to the pledges to bless same-sex unions signed this summer by more than 900 active and retired clergy across the United States.

The clergy’s pledges threaten the future of The United Methodist Church, contend both the clergy and laity letters.

“The church needs you to lead,” the clergy letter tells the bishops. “We need you to act before the promised disobedience occurs. We need you to issue a public statement that you understand the proposed disobedience to be a grave threat to the unity and the life of the UM Church and that you stand together in your commitment to defend and enforce The Book of Discipline.”

A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, identifies the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Book prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from officiating at “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”

“I understand that there are people with good hearts on both sides,” said the Rev. Ed Robb III, senior pastor of the 9,200-member Woodlands United Methodist Church near Houston. “But the church has consistently come down with a position. … The way we deal with these matters is through holy conferencing. We don’t do it by renegade activity.”

The Rev. Ed Robb. A web-only photo courtesy of The Woodlands United Methodist Church.

Robb and four other pastors spearheaded the letter campaign after talking about the issue earlier this month at The Leading Edge meeting, a gathering for the senior pastors of the 100 largest United Methodist churches in the United States.

The other leaders of the effort include the Revs. Tom Harrison of Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Okla.; Charles C. Kyker of Christ United Methodist Church in Hickory, N.C.; Ken Werlein of Faithbridge United Methodist Church in Spring, Texas; and Steve Wood of Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church in Alpharetta, Ga. The pastors hope to collect signatures from like-minded clergy and laity at www.faithfulumc.com.

“This is grass roots,” Kyker said. “We are not representing any agency or any group. We just have a heart for the unity of our church.”

Bishop’s response

Individual bishops, including Chicago Area Bishop Hee-Soo Jung and Minnesota Area Bishop Sally Dyck, have issued statements affirming their commitment to enforce church law. The cabinet of the Minnesota Annual (regional) Conference recently filed a formal complaint against a retired elder and is investigating whether he violated the denomination’s ban against performing same-sex unions.

However, the pastors want the Council of Bishops to make a statement as a body. The United Methodist Church at present has 153 bishops, 69 of whom are active.

“The bishops have limitations, but what they really do have is influence among pastors and among one another,” said Kyker, whose church has a weekly attendance of about 2,500. “A lot of times we talk about bishops making appointments, and a lot of times we talk about bishops upholding the Book of Discipline. But we fail to mention that they are also to teach and disseminate the doctrine of the church.”

However, the pastors want the Council of Bishops to make a statement as a body. The United Methodist Church at present has 153 bishops, 69 of whom are active.

“The bishops have limitations, but what they really do have is influence among pastors and among one another,” said Kyker, whose church has a weekly attendance of about 2,500. “A lot of times we talk about bishops making appointments, and a lot of times we talk about bishops upholding the Book of Discipline. But we fail to mention that they are also to teach and disseminate the doctrine of the church.”

Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, the president of the Council of Bishops, confirmed that he and other bishops have received the letters.

When the Council of Bishops’ executive committee meets before the council’s fall meeting, he said, the group would review the letters and “decide about any response that it might make or that might come from the full council.

“I believe that we bishops clearly understand and act according to the Book of Discipline, Paragraph 47, Section Three, of the Constitution,” Goodpaster said, “where we are charged with ‘carrying into effect the rules, regulations, and responsibilities prescribed and enjoined by the General Conference.’”

Long-time debate

Since 1972, the subject of homosexuality has sparked discussion every four years at General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body. Delegates consistently have voted to keep the Discipline’s stance against homosexuality.

Various groups have proposed legislation to next year’s General Conference to change the ban on same-sex unions.

Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster.  A UMNS Photo by Mike DuBose.

However, this year, a number of clergy have taken the additional step of expressing their willingness to defy church law on the issue.

The movement started at the Minnesota Annual Conference session, where 70 clergy signed a statement saying they would “offer the grace of the Church’s blessing to any prepared couple desiring Christian marriage,” including same-sex couples. Similar statements were subsequently signed by clergy in at least four other annual conference gatherings, including New England, Northern Illinois, Oregon-Idaho and Tennessee.

By mid-August, more than 1,000 U.S. clergy in the United States had signed such pledges, organizers said. There are about 44,400 clergy in the United States.

The Rev. Bruce Robbins. A UMNS file photo.

The Rev. Bruce Robbins, pastor of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, organized the signature collection in Minnesota. The clergy’s letter to the bishops specifically takes him to task.

“It grieves me that there is not some sense of compassion or grace or some recognition of an understanding that we too are faithful United Methodists who are caught in a powerful dilemma between different covenants that we have,” Robbins said. “The Book of Discipline calls us for inclusiveness and recognizing the sacred worth of all persons, and then places prohibitions that we deeply believe are prejudicial and unjust.”

Robbins, whose church has an average weekly attendance of 600, is also the former top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

He noted that the clergy letter suggests clergy who wish to perform same-sex unions should leave the denomination.

“But I am United Methodist, and my Methodist roots go back many, many generations,” Robbins said. “And there have been times in the Methodist tradition when people have been excluded before, such as women in ordination and the permissiveness of slavery.”

General Conference approaches

Monica Swink, a member of Epworth United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, criticized the clergy and laity letters to the bishops as “doom and gloom.”

She is a leader in the “Love Your Neighbor” campaign launched by Common Witness, a coalition of three unofficial caucuses that advocate for greater inclusiveness of gay members. The campaign advocates changing the Book of Discipline.

“They are asking the church to punish and judge,” she said. “And I just think the church needs to reflect God’s love.”

However, Ken Werlein, one of the leaders in the effort to press the bishops, said he fears lay people will pressure pastors to stop funding the general church unless bishops enforce the Book of Discipline.

Telling church members that the Book of Discipline requires apportionments “will not have much moral force if others are allowed to break the Discipline and be unfaithful to our United Methodist positions without meaningful consequences,” he said.

The letters follow the trial of the Rev. Amy DeLong in Wisconsin, who was convicted in June of performing a same-sex union and sentenced to a 20-day suspension as well as a yearlong process “to restore the broken clergy covenant relationship.”

Among the letter signers is the Rev. Jorge Mayorga Solis, the district superintendent in Wisconsin who brought the complaint against DeLong.

In February, 36 retired bishops called on the denomination to end its ban on “practicing” gay clergy.

The next Council of Bishops meeting is scheduled Oct. 31-Nov. 4 at Lake Junaluska, N.C. General Conference will next convene April 24-May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Fla.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.