Citing the "overwhelmingly" negative feedback, leaders of United Methodist Men sent a letter dated Feb. 19 to Boy Scouts of America asking the nonprofit to delay any proposed change to its ban on gay members and leaders.
"A few have told us they support this proposed change by BSA; however, overall, the responses have been overwhelmingly against the proposed change," said the letter signed by Gil Hanke, top executive of the Commission on United Methodist Men, and Mississippi Area Bishop James E. Swanson Sr., the commission's president.
"This potential shift from BSA places (United Methodist Men's) primary goal, our core value - expansion and retention - at risk."
United Methodist Men oversees scouting ministries and civic youth-serving agencies across the denomination. Boy Scouts of America announced Jan. 28 that it was considering leaving the question of whether to have gay leaders and members up to its local charter organizations. On Feb. 6, Boy Scouts of America's national board decided to "further engage with representatives of Scouting's membership" and postponed any decision until its annual meeting in May.
The letter made two requests affirmed by the United Methodist Men board's executive committee. The first was not to implement any changes "at this time" to give U.S. annual (regional) conferences and thousands of United Methodist churches more time to research what the change might mean. The second request was that this be "the beginning of a new relationship" between Boy Scouts of America and the faith communities that support it.
The letter did not specify how long a delay should last.
Hanke told United Methodist News Service that the executive committee meeting prompted the letter.
"Since other religious groups had made statements regarding this issue, our members asked if the (Commission on United Methodist Men) would make a statement," he said. "Our goal in this is to simply keep the conversation going. The actions of BSA have caused many more questions, and they are unable to answer them."
He added that he hopes the Boy Scouts of America religious relations task force "can be more involved in this process and help craft new ways to address this issue."
Hanke first released a statement on Jan. 29 affirming how the Boy Scouts' proposed changes would be implemented.
In that statement, he said, "the proposed changes are actually more consistent with the current Book of Discipline," the denomination's law book.
That statement also noted that Hanke and Larry Coppock, national director of scouting ministries, "were consulted by the leadership at the highest levels of BSA prior to the proposal to change membership requirements."
After hearing from leaders threatening to quit over the proposed change, Hanke elaborated in a statement Jan. 31, saying that what he endorsed was moving the responsibility for selecting leaders and members to the local church level.
The second statement also emphasized that United Methodist Men played no part in helping Boy Scouts of America formulate the proposed changes. The agency was only informed of the proposal.
"The reason we endorsed this model of implementation is because it allows your local church to continue to operate exactly like it is operating today," Hanke said in the Jan. 31 statement. "You choose the leaders, you recruit the scouts; the leadership of your troop and pack reflects the traditions and values of your faith community," he wrote.
When the Boy Scouts of America in early February delayed approving the changes, Coppock hailed the extra time for "further dialogue and meaningful discussions."
Boy Scout and United Methodist ties
Deron Smith, spokesman for Boy Scouts of America, said his organization would include the United Methodist Men’s letter in its deliberations.
“We recognize, deeply respect and value the sincere religious beliefs held by our many chartered organizations, including those expressed in this statement, and we look forward to continued dialogue with the Church,” he said by email.
More than 70 percent of Scout units are chartered to religiously affiliated groups, reports Boy Scouts of America. The United Methodist Men’s letter noted that those charters comprise 62 percent of the membership in Boy Scouts of America.
The United Methodist Church is second only to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the number of congregations that host Boy Scouts of America groups. The United Methodist Church hosts more Cub Scout packs than any other religious group.
As of 2012, 6,700 United Methodist congregations served 363,876 young people through 10,868 Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops and Venturing crews. Venturing crews are open to both young men and women, ages 14 to 20.
In addition to Boy Scout-affiliated groups, United Methodist Men promotes other youth organizations including Girl Scouts of the USA, Big Brothers Big Sisters Amachi Partnership, Camp Fire USA and 4-H.
Those groups have varied policies regarding sexual orientation. For example, the policy of Girl Scouts of the USA, its local councils and troops is that it does not discriminate or recruit on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, national origin or physical or developmental disability.
Reactions to letter
The United Methodist Men's letter sparked varied reactions among United Methodists with a passion for scouting.
Gary Vance, scoutmaster of Troop 413 at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio, was among the Boy Scout leaders who welcomed the United Methodist Men's letter.
"I was not certain that the view of the local charter would 100 percent back the traditional Boy Scout view on this subject or if we would be divided on it," Vance said. "I have concerns over the physical safety of the boys if the current rules are changed. I also do not understand the thinking of those in the national BSA leadership because BSA already won in the courts. Why did they choose to reopen this issue?"
The church and homosexuality
Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has identified the practice of homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching."
It also affirms that all people are "individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God," and proclaims a commitment to be in ministry for and with all people.
Church law prohibits "self-avowed practicing" gays and lesbians from serving as clergy, but the book is silent about whether they can serve as lay leaders in other church roles.
The Book of Discipline additionally supports "the rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation."
The United Methodist Church's Book of Resolutions, which contains the denomination's policy statements on social issues, also calls on the denomination to "dedicate itself to a ministry of Christ-like hospitality and compassion to persons of all sexual orientation ...welcoming sexual minorities, their friends, and families into our churches."
He also said that every parent who spoke to him was opposed to the Boy Scouts of America changing its current policy.
However, the Rev. Stephen Griffith, minister to the community at Saint Paul United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Neb., said he was disappointed in the letter and applauded Hanke's initial statement on Jan. 29.
His congregation has chartered Boy Scout Troop 12 since 1911, and he said that relationship will continue regardless of what Boy Scouts of America decides. Still, he would welcome the change.
"The United Methodist Church does not restrict membership based on sexual orientation, and I see no reason why the Boy Scouts should do so," he said. "The pastors have long regretted that the BSA has not been open to gays in its membership and leadership, but we will continue to support our troop.
"Our scoutmaster reports that the troop's scout committee has not discussed this matter," he added. "They have had no questions or comments from parents about the matter. He believes that the proposed change in membership policy would not change the program."
The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., hosts a number of Boy Scout groups, including Scout Troop 11, a coed troop for adolescents and young adults with special needs.
Dan Entwistle, the church's managing executive director for programs and ministries, said the church - one of the largest United Methodist congregations in the United States - has not taken an official position on the Boy Scouts' ban. But he welcomed additional time for discussion.
"We think the conversation is important, particularly as it relates to the participation of young people in the scouting program," Entwistle said.
"If the Boy Scouts' policy should change, we will work with our own scouting leaders, participants and congregation leaders. Scouting ministry is important to our church."
He added that if the policy changes, most United Methodist churches "will likely appreciate the additional opportunity to apply the church's perspectives to this important issue."
Jim Winkler, top executive of United Methodist Board of Church and Society, previously had noted his support for the proposed changes to the Boy Scouts' membership policy.
"Whether the Boy Scouts delay their decision now or not," he told United Methodist News Service on Feb. 22, "I look forward to the day in the near future when they will set aside policies that discriminate against homosexual scouts and leaders."
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].