|California United Methodists react to same-sex ruling|
A UMNS Report
By Marta W. Aldrich*
July 8, 2008
On the heels of a California Supreme Court ruling that opened the door
to same-gender unions, two United Methodist legislative bodies in
California have approved gay-friendly statements that are stretching the
denominational promise of "open hearts, open minds, open doors.”
The church's California-Pacific Annual Conference, convening June 18-22
in Redlands, approved three measures that support same-gender couples
entering into the marriage covenant. Each "encourages both congregations
and pastors to welcome, embrace and provide spiritual nurture and
pastoral care for these families," according to a June 27 letter to the
conference from Bishop Mary Ann Swenson and other conference leaders.
Bishop Beverly Shamana presides June 19 over the
California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference in Sacramento, Calif. A
UMNS photo by Paul "Spud" Hilton.
That same week in Sacramento, the California-Nevada Annual Conference
approved two measures on the same issue, including one that lists 67
retired United Methodist clergy in northern California who have offered
to conduct same-gender marriage ceremonies. The resolution commends the
pastors' work in offering continued ministry.
The statements are the strongest yet on the issue by California United
Methodists and have drawn cheers from gay rights advocates, who say the
church and its pastors should extend to same-sex couples the same level
of support it provides heterosexual couples.
Others say the conferences are on the verge of breaking a Scripturally
based covenant with the rest of the 11.5 million-member worldwide
denomination. The United Methodist Church, while affirming all people as
persons "of sacred worth," considers the practice of homosexuality
"incompatible with Christian teaching." Its policy book, called the Book of Discipline, prohibits its pastors and churches from conducting ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions.
The denominational statements were affirmed last spring during split
votes by General Conference, the church's top legislative body. The
assembly, which met April 23-May 2, convenes every four years and
represents United Methodists worldwide.
That same month, California's high court overturned a voter-approved ban
on same-sex marriage, making California and Massachusetts the only U.S.
states to allow gay couples to marry. California began to issue
licenses June 16.
The actions by United Methodist leaders in southern California reflect
the struggle by pastors and churches to minister to same-sex couples in
the wake of actions by both the General Conference and the state's high
court, according to the Rev. Frank Wulf, pastor of United University
Church, a United Methodist/Presbyterian congregation in Los Angeles.
"This recognizes that our pastors and our churches are already
struggling with these decisions," said Wulf, who helped to author the
resolutions. "It's an attempt to honor the choices they make."
Bishop Mary Ann Swenson
of the Los Angeles Area welcomes conference delegates. A UMNS photo
by Larry R. Hygh Jr.
One resolution reads in part: "While we recognize that we are governed by the Book of Discipline
of The United Methodist Church, we support those pastors who
conscientiously respond to the needs of their parishes by celebrating
same-gender marriages, and we envision compassion and understanding in
any resulting disciplinary actions."
The second resolution acknowledges the May 15 court decision, and the
third opposes a November ballot initiative in California that would
reverse the court ruling and amend the state constitution to bar gay
In northern California, the California-Nevada Conference voted to
support both the court ruling and the pastoral alternative offered by
some retired clergy. "Some of our clergy will choose not to perform
same-gender marriages, for various reasons, but would like to keep a
continued ministry with families and loved ones of same-gender couples,"
the resolution states. "…Retired clergy in our conference are now
available to perform the marriages as an aid to the congregation and
Bishop Beverly Shamana, who presides over the conference, declined to
comment on the action. Responding to an elder's call, she has sent a
ruling to the denomination's top court on the question of how the
conference can authorize and commend its clergy to conduct an act that
might violate church law. The Judicial Council is expected to consider
her ruling when it convenes in October.
The latest developments in the California conferences trouble United
Methodists who view such actions as a challenge to both Scriptural
authority and the church's covenant through its Book of Discipline. They note that General Conference has repeatedly affirmed its stance on homosexuality and homosexual unions.
"We've made it clear we adhere to biblical teaching and Christian
tradition," said the Rev. Eddie Fox, director of evangelism for the
World Methodist Council. "Ninety-eight percent of Christians around the
world believe marriage is between one man and one woman, so we're not
out of step in our ecumenical relationships with Christians around the
At the most recent General Conference, Fox helped lead the effort to
keep the church's stance on homosexuality intact. He argued that "God
created the maleness and the femaleness" and that this "order of
creation is, at the very heart, one of those essential doctrines for us
in our church."
The Rev. Eddie Fox presents a petition during the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS file photo
by Maile Bradfield.
"If we don't have a clear, consistent statement on this, it will result
in confusion in our church," Fox said in a July 7 interview with UMNS.
"These are the Social Principles for the whole church, not for one
church." The Social Principles, contained in the Book of Discipline, detail the church’s position on homosexuality and other social concerns.
The Rev. Maxie Dunnam urged all pastors and churches to act on the
church's definition of marriage instead of secular definitions. "The
church is called to be prophetic in opposing that in the culture that is
clearly out of step with what our United Methodist Church, the church
universal and the Christian faith affirms," said Dunnam, chancellor of
Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.
"I would hope that people would recognize the pain that their action
will cause for the whole church, especially as we seek to be a global
The Rev. John McFarland was among California-Pacific members who
questioned the wisdom of the body's decisions and the processes being
used to discern God's voice.
"This topic is not being debated based on Scripture," said McFarland,
pastor of Fountain Valley (Calif.) United Methodist Church. "It's being
debated primarily on experience without regard to tradition, reason and
Scripture." Scripture, tradition, experience and reason are the four
themes cited by Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, as illuminating the
"Even though wonderful and caring people practice same-sex behavior, the
discussion does not end there. What concerns me is how far we've gone
from trusting the Bible as the Word of God," said McFarland. He noted
that 2 Timothy 3:16 says "all Scripture is inspired by God and
profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in
Interpretation vs. authority
Proponents of conference actions suggest the issue is not biblical authority, but biblical interpretation.
"It is our UM tradition to interpret Scripture with attention to its
context and purpose," said the Rev. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett, pastor of
Claremont (Calif.) United Methodist Church.
"We create misunderstandings when we choose some texts to be understood
as literal and others not," she said. "We once excluded women as clergy
based on Scriptural authority; we once justified slave-holding based on
Scripture. We're doing the same thing now with regard to homosexuality."
Wulf said the church's unity does not necessarily lie in the unanimity
of practice in all things. "We are fallible human beings, and our
covenant is imperfect. We all know that because we get together every
four years to adjust it," he said of the church's General Conference.
"To those of us in the West who feel a calling to offer a different kind
of message to same-sex couples, there is a sense in which the whole
church wants to hem us in and prevent us from following that calling,"
"… We know the world is in flux, particularly on this issue," he said.
"So we do this––not as an act of disrespect to the people of Africa or
the people of (other parts of the United States)––but as a way of
speaking the Christian Gospel compassionately to a group of people who
deal with this every day."
*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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