“Widespread disregard” of the United Methodist ban on same-sex unions and a lack of enforcement by bishops has made the denomination’s situation “untenable,” says an April 1 statement from an unofficial United Methodist renewal group.
“If we are one church, we cannot act as if we are two. If in reality we are two churches, it may not be wise to pretend any longer that we are one,” said the statement from the board and staff of Good News, which supports maintaining the denomination’s current definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
“Many are discussing the wisdom of churches continuing to fund a denomination that is unwilling to live by its policies and whose chief officers do not enforce its beliefs,” the statement continued.
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, told United Methodist News Service the group released the statement because its leaders “want the United Methodist leadership to understand how deep the crisis is at the moment.”
He added that the group also wants to reassure those who support the denomination’s teachings on homosexuality “that we are doing all we can to help the church stay faithful to that.”
Greater Northwest Area Bishop Grant Hagiya has previously written about what he sees as “A Way Forward,” despite the church’s deep divisions regarding how best to minister with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. He expressed disappointment in the Good News statement.
“As I look at the Scriptures, there were hundreds of untenable situations that humans put themselves in, and yet the Triune God was able to steer a path which reconciled and allowed grace and forgiveness to reign supreme,” the bishop told UMNS. “I refuse to believe that any human context is untenable … unless God declares it so.”
Church law and division
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has asserted all people are of sacred worth but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The book defines marriage as a covenant “that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.” It bans United Methodist clergy from performing and churches from hosting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
Since 2004, officiating at a same-sex union has been listed as a chargeable offense that potentially could lead to a church trial.
Nevertheless, as more states have legalized same-sex marriage (17 states and the District of Columbia), a number of United Methodist clergy have publicly defied church law, even in states that do not legally recognize such unions. Since 2011, more than 1,000 active and retired United Methodist clergy in the United States have signed petitions announcing their willingness to perform same-gender unions.
After a countermovement of United Methodists urging the bishops to respond, the bishops promised in a Nov. 11, 2011, statement to uphold church law on same-gender unions. The Good News statement said there has been “widespread disregard” of that promise.
Lambrecht said bishops have the power to discourage clergy in their conferences from disobeying the denomination’s teachings and “ensure that same-sex weddings stop.”
He said his group is looking for “a meaningful consequence” for pastors who “defy the vows they made to uphold the Book of Discipline.”
However, he declined to specifically identify what Good News sees as a meaningful consequence for violations. “Whatever would accomplish the purpose of holding people accountable and gaining people’s compliance with the covenant is what we’re interested in,” he said.
Lambrecht did point to Bishop Scott Jones, who leads the Great Plains Area that encompasses Kansas and Nebraska, as someone who offers a potential model for other bishops.
In a January sermon titled “Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace,” Jones told a gathering of Great Plains clergy that if 100 pastors perform same-gender unions, “Then there will be 100 suspensions from ministry during the supervisory response followed by 100 trials.”
Jones added that “not to hold a trial when a chargeable offense occurs and a just resolution cannot be achieved is to violate our United Methodist identity.”
The Good News statement follows the New York Conference decision to resolve without a trial the complaint against the Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired seminary dean who officiated at the same-sex wedding of his son. The conference’s Bishop Martin D. McLee also called for “the cessation of church trials” against United Methodist pastors who perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.
It also follows the February news that two Pacific Northwest Conference clergy under complaint for officiating at same-sex unions would face one-day suspensions without pay rather than a trial.
Meanwhile, the complaint process is still ongoing against clergy across the United States for officiating at same-sex unions. They include the Rev. Stephen Heiss, a pastor in the Upper New York Conference; the Rev. William McElvaney, a retired United Methodist pastor and former seminary president in the North Texas Conference; and retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert.
A way to keep the church together
Lambrecht said he does not see a way forward while some United Methodists are disobeying the same-sex union ban.
“We can’t have a conversation while one of the conversation partners is already acting in bad faith,” he said.
He also said the church’s dispute regarding homosexuality has become a proxy for deep theological divisions within the church including the view of Scripture and other foundational church doctrines.
Hagiya said he sees a way for United Methodists to move forward together by balancing "inquiry with advocacy.”
“If I come to the table wanting to win, or force my view on another person, we all lose,” he said. “However, if I come in dialogue knowing clearly where I stand, but willing to hear and question the opposite view of my own, then inquiry becomes the balancing rod to my own advocacy. It means coming together with a different purpose than winning or convincing someone of our rightness. What I believe we should strive for is the transformation of the mind and spirit, and instead of having it right, acknowledging that there may be many ‘rights.’”
Both Hagiya and the Good News statement requested prayer for The United Methodist Church.
Jones did not immediately return requests for comment. But during his January sermon, he offered a way for the church to maintain its unity in the midst of deep disagreement.
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” he said. “If you believe that abortion (on either side) or same-gender marriage (on either side) is the main thing, you are going to be disappointed in The United Methodist Church. For us, the main thing is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].