Young clergywomen challenge evangelical group

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More than 200 young clergywomen have a message for the new Wesleyan Covenant Association — United Methodists who disagree with the group about homosexuality believe in God, the church and the Bible, too.

“We urge the Wesleyan Covenant Association to be mindful in the ways it claims Christian and Wesleyan language as its own to use in convicting those who disagree with the WCA’s purpose and beliefs,” said an open letter signed, as of March 5, by 218 United Methodist clergywomen under age 40. The group also has put together a video with various signers reading the letter.

The letter responds to a Wesleyan Covenant Association video inviting people to its second meeting April 28-29 in Memphis, Tennessee. The theme of the gathering is “We believe in the Church.”

The Rev. Madeline Carrasco Henners, a fellow young clergywoman, outlined in the video the nature of the association and why she and others believe the group is needed now. Henners is an association organizer and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Luling, Texas. In the video, she said the group believes: “God is good, the Bible is true, and promises should be kept.”

“Believe it or not, there are those in the UMC who don’t agree with all or even part of those three simple statements,” Henners said in the video.

Later in the same video, she spoke about a minority of United Methodist clergy, laypeople and bishops who “have willfully and publicly broken their sacred covenant and have vowed not to obey those doctrines and standards of the Book of Discipline.” The reason for this minority’s defiance, Henners said, is they deem church rules “inconsistent with modern thought and culture.”

The Rev. Shannon E. Sullivan, pastor of Presbury United Methodist Church in Edgewood, Maryland, said the video made her feel “my faith was maligned.”

To her, the video seemed to say: “If you do not believe exactly as we believe, then you are capitulating to culture and you’re not a real faithful person.”

Sullivan drafted a letter that she posted on a clergywomen’s Facebook group on March 2. Other clergywomen helped Sullivan refine the statement and spread it on social media.

Sullivan said she wanted to show that not all young clergywomen held the same views as Henners. She also wanted the statement to speak not just to the Wesleyan Covenant Association but also address the politically polarized United States where people too often assume they can’t speak to people with different beliefs.

“We wanted to explain in our statement that, no, as a church we need to model better dialogue,” Sullivan said. “We need to learn to understand each other and how we come to our understandings instead of just saying, ‘If you don’t think homosexuality is a sin, it’s because you are not actually reading the Bible.’”

The clergywomen’s letter says: “To make a promise to uphold the Book of Discipline doesn't mean we can't strive to make it closer to the way we understand God wants us to live. After all, as Wesleyans, we believe we are going on to perfection.”                                                            

The Rev. Jeff Greenway, the lead pastor of Reynoldsburg United Methodist Church in Ohio and a leader of the association, said that he had not yet had the chance to review the clergywomen’s letter. Still, he is not surprised that there are United Methodists who disagree with his group’s views.

“Anyone who does not know there are conflicting opinions in The United Methodist Church has not been paying attention over the last 40 years,” he said by email. “We think that the video in question and our website does a very good job expressing our thoughts on the matter and as such we see no need for further response.”

Henners did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter.

Organizers last summer publicly announced the formation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a new group that requires members to pay membership fees and sign on to a covenant. In October, some 1,800 United Methodists attended the group’s inaugural meeting in Chicago.

As of Jan. 25, the association had 1,222 founding members (including 755 clergy and 467 laity) and 78 member congregations.

The group regards United Methodist teachings on homosexuality as biblical orthodoxy and wants church leaders to uphold the denomination’s ban on same-gender unions and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. One of the group’s goals is to influence the Commission on a Way Forward, which bishops have appointed to review church policies regarding the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning individuals.

The association already has put the commission on notice against any break with current church teachings. Two Way Forward Commission members are on the association’s leadership council.

In the video, Henners never explicitly mentions homosexuality but talks about a debate over doctrine that’s been brewing in the denomination for more than 40 years. In 1972, General Conference — the denomination’s top policymaking body — added to the Book of Discipline the statement all people are of sacred worth but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Debate about the church’s stance has surfaced at each General Conference since then. The body has consistently voted to keep the same language and over the years has expanded on restrictions against gay clergy and same-gender unions.

Nevertheless, more United Methodists have openly defied these bans in recent years. In July, the Western Jurisdiction elected and consecrated Bishop Karen Oliveto, who is openly gay and married.

A number of the clergywomen who signed the letter lead congregations where people have diverse views on how the church should minister with LGBTQ individuals. The letter also notes that not all the signers are willing to officiate at same-gender marriages while the denomination bans such unions. But they do agree that the Discipline’s restrictions should change.

The Rev. Catherine Christman, a member of the West Michigan Conference serving a church in Wisconsin, is among those who do plan to stick with church rules until those rules are changed.

“I see my role in partnering with folks to do good and see what we can do to help people stay in love with God,” she said, alluding to John Wesley’s rules for Methodism. She quickly added that she believes the Discipline needs to be changed. The current wording, she said, does harm to people and “gives our beloved church a bad rap.”

The Rev. Roslyn Lee, pastor of Cheshire United Methodist Church in Cheshire, Connecticut, and one of the letter organizers, envisions a big-tent denomination where people of varied views can be in ministry together.

"There are people who really resonate with what the WCA says,” she said. “But we all need to come together to listen to each other and see where we can grow together. I think if we are here to say we’re about making disciples of Jesus Christ, we would be willing to see that some of our actions hurt others. There is a place for all of us.”  

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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