The denomination's 30-year-old ban on ordaining gay men and lesbians remains, but United Methodist leaders admit there is a large and vocal minority of faithful, biblically grounded Christians who disagree with the official stand.
To that end, the United Methodist bishops meeting April 28-May 3 participated in the first of four churchwide conversations designed to "create open, grace-filled space" for people to discuss, disagree about and acknowledge the "deep wounds" experienced by the church around this issue.
For nearly 20 years, church law as recorded in the Book of Discipline has included a ban on the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" and has espoused "fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness." And while acknowledging the "sacred worth" of homosexuals, church law condemns homosexual practices as "incompatible with Christian teaching."
After a particularly tense series of votes on homosexuality - and pro-gay-rights demonstrations - at the 2000 General Conference, delegates asked the denomination's Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns and the Council of Bishops to sponsor churchwide conversations on the issue. The purpose: to model for local congregations honest, thoughtful dialogue to replace win-or-lose wrangling on what is viewed by many as the denomination's most controversial issue.
At their spring meeting, members of the Council of Bishops sat around tables to discuss their feelings and theological understandings about the issue that many have feared would split the 9.7-million-member denomination. Their comments came in response to papers presented by two respected scholars, the Rev. Billy Abraham of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas and the Rev. Donald Messer of Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Quoting Galatians 3:28-29, Messer declared that inclusiveness of all people was a "precondition of being the one catholic, apostolic" church of Jesus Christ. He also asked the bishops to consider whether, like the church's "dramatic" change in how we now view divorce, there is some "new revelation or understanding from God" about sexual identity.
Abraham countered that the gospel of Christ "is not about inclusivism or exclusivism. It's not even about sex." Rather, he said that the church - and its bishops - is called to ensure "that God's Word for us in Christ is fulfilled and practiced." He stressed that the "final ultimate word of God" clearly affirms sexual unions among married, heterosexual partners only.
In their follow-up conversations, the bishops weighed in. Chicago Area Bishop C. Joseph Sprague took issue with the notion that homosexuality is, by definition, flawed. He asserted that if God creates gay men and lesbians, "God brings them to wholeness where they are."
Retired Bishop Richard Looney of Lake Junaluska, N.C., defended the church's current stand. "I would hope that our current position would be viewed as a loving one. We don't have signs outside our churches that say, 'No homosexuals allowed,'" he said. "We do have a position on the practice of homosexuality, and it is consistent with the Scriptures."
The three other churchwide dialogues will involve members of the General Council on Ministries, youth and young adults, and people of color in leadership in the denomination. Planners hope to encourage similar conversations at the regional and local church levels.
The bishops also spent a day examining racism and its effect on their work and life. They discussed the challenges of appointing pastors across lines of race, and asserted the need for more training and preparation for congregations and clergy in order to make successful cross-racial appointments.
Led by the Rev. Chester Jones, top staff executive of the churchwide Commission on Religion and Race, the workshop challenged the bishops to explore their own roles in either promoting or eradicating racism from the process of appointing and promoting clergy.
Bishop William Dew of the Phoenix Area was among those who stressed the importance of education and training for local churches in receiving and working with a pastor of a race or culture different than that of the congregation. "You can never prepare the church enough," he said.
He also urged his colleagues to identify churches and pastors that are ready for cross-racial appointment and to offer them "visible support" before, during and after the assignment is made.
For a church about to receive a new pastor from another racial group, the role of the current pastor in that slot "plays a key role in whether or not the transition is a smooth one," said Bishop Joel Martinez of the denomination's San Antonio (Texas) Area. "They lay the groundwork for the church, so we've got to work with all pastors and the cabinet to see that cross-racial appointments succeed."
Still, the bishops' tenacity and commitment to desegregating churches determine the success of pastors appointed across racial lines, declared Bishop G. Lindsey Davis of the Atlanta Area.
"The main stumbling block to cross-racial appointments belong at our feet," he said. "If we lack the moral courage to do what we need to do, then racism will continue to be a problem."
In other business during their spring meeting, the bishops:
- Adopted a message to the church for Labor Day (in the United States, Sept. 2), emphasizing the right of all workers to receive a "living wage" and calling on governments around the world to allow workers to organize unions to protect their rights.
- Began conversations with heads of United Methodist theological schools about working together to better train and equip pastors for ministry at all levels of church life.
- Asked its executive committee to plan a trip for the Council of Bishops to Vieques, Puerto Rico, during the group's Nov. 3-8 meeting in San Juan, "as an expression of the council's corporate witness." (Bishop Juan Vera of the affiliated autonomous Methodist Church of Puerto Rico has been among the church leaders opposing the U.S. Navy's use of the island for bombing exercises. A resolution passed by the 2000 General Conference called for the return of the land to the people of Vieques and U.S. government attention to the health concerns and economic development needs there.)
- Adopted statements on the current Middle East crisis and made plans to lobby the U.S. Congress this summer for more support for children and the poor.
- Named Mississippi Bishop Kenneth Carder to deliver the Episcopal Address at the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh.
The international council includes nearly 150 active and retired United Methodist bishops in Africa, Europe, the United States and the Philippines.
*Burton is director of United Methodist News Service.