|Judicial Council decisions stir debate across church|
Nov. 29, 2005
The Rev. Ed Johnson
A UMNS Report
By Neill Caldwell*
In the weeks following important United Methodist Judicial Council
decisions related to homosexuality, conversation at all levels of the
denomination has concerned little else.
Almost all of the caucus groups related to the church have made
statements concerning either the decisions of the court, a pastoral
letter written in response by the Council of Bishops, or both. The
decisions have raised fundamental issues regarding membership, the
authority of the pastor and what it means to be Christ’s church.
Meeting in Houston in late October, the Judicial Council upheld the
removal of ministerial credentials from Beth Stroud of Pennsylvania, who
is in a lesbian relationship. That ruling, however, was overshadowed by
another one, Decision 1032, in which the church’s supreme court found
in favor of the Rev. Ed Johnson of Virginia, who had denied membership
to a man who was in an openly homosexual relationship. Johnson had been
placed on involuntary leave by the Virginia Annual (regional) Conference
but was reinstated by the Judicial Council.
In his first sermon back in the pulpit of South Hill (Va.) United
Methodist Church, Johnson acknowledged disagreement within the
denomination but said he hoped United Methodists might disagree “in
Christian love,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In Minneapolis, Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church held a “Worship
Service of Thanksgiving and Protest” that attracted 1,200 people on Nov.
20. The service included an affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender persons and an apology for “this latest example of bigotry
in the United Methodist Church.”
The Rev. Bruce Robbins
“I find this decision contrary to our denomination’s Constitution that
affirms that all persons are of sacred worth and are eligible to attend
worship services, participate in programs, receive the sacraments and
upon taking vows, become members,” said the Rev. Bruce Robbins, senior
minister at Hennepin Church and former top staff executive of the United
Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.
On Nov. 3, more than 100 people attended a prayer vigil, hosted by
United Methodist-related Iliff School of Theology seminarians, at the
denomination’s Rocky Mountain Annual (regional) Conference office in
response to the recent decisions related to homosexual rights. And the
board of trustees of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio
unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Judicial Council’s decision
and asking for a reconsideration of the ruling.
Disappointed in the bishops
Conservative caucus group leaders applauded the Judicial Council’s
decisions and questioned the response from the Council of Bishops. In a
Nov. 2 statement, the bishops said that while pastors are responsible
for discerning readiness for membership, “homosexuality is not a
barrier.” They cited the denomination’s Social Principles, which state
that God’s grace is available to all and that the church is committed to
being in ministry with all persons.
The Book of Discipline affirms homosexuals as people “of sacred
worth.” It also holds the practice of homosexuality incompatible with
Christian teaching, and it bars the performance of same-sex unions by
the church’s clergy and in the church’s sanctuaries.
“We are disappointed that the bishops’ pastoral letter
does not affirm more clearly the Judicial Council decision (1032) but
instead appears to be raising questions about it,” said the Rev. James
V. Heidinger II, president and publisher of Good News, an unofficial
United Methodist evangelical organization.
“We are not sure what the intent of their response is,” Heidinger said.
“We are left wondering if they were questioning the decision,
disagreeing with it, or just seeking to clarify the decision and
reaffirm the church’s commitment to be in ministry to all persons.”
“Thankfully, the Judicial Council has upheld the clear meaning of United
Methodism’s standards on marriage and sex, which have been repeatedly
ratified by the church’s governing General Conference every four years
since 1972,” said Mark Tooley, who directs the Institute on Religion and
Democracy’s United Methodist Action committee.
“Undoubtedly, some in the declining regions of the church will continue
to try to find ways to circumvent church law,” Tooley said. “The debate
over this issue will certainly continue for some years. But the future
of the church, whose membership is increasingly international, belongs
to theological orthodoxy and historic Christianity.”
A statement on the Web page of the Confessing Movement, an unofficial
United Methodist organization, said that while the Judicial Council’s
rulings make church policy more clear, the bishops’ response is
“The pastoral letter sent a confusing message; thus we feel the bishops
are contributing not to our unity but to disunity. When will we hear a
clear word from our bishops speaking with one voice, upholding the
doctrine and discipline of our church? … The truth is pastors have been
too lenient, not too stringent, in the requirements of membership.
“To deny someone membership in the church is not to withhold the
ministry of the church from them,” the Confessing Movement said. “If we
truly believe that all persons are of sacred worth, then ministering to
them means seeking to save them from destructive behavior and sinful
Who’s a member?
“The recent action of the United Methodist Judicial Council affirmed the
traditional view that the local pastor has discretionary authority to
determine when a person is prepared to join that church,” said the Rev.
Bill Bouknight, senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in
Memphis, Tenn., in a posting on the same site.
Bouknight drew a distinction between participation and membership.
“Let’s suppose that a person wanted to join a United Methodist church
but told the pastor candidly that he did not believe in racial equality
and thought the church should be racially segregated. The pastor could
say, with justification, ‘Brother, you are welcome to attend our church
and to enjoy our fellowship, but your racial views are contrary to
biblical standards. I will gladly counsel with you on this matter, but
until you are open to the biblical perspective on this issue, I cannot
admit you into membership.’”
The ruling “is chilling in its implications,” said the Rev. Kathryn
Johnson, executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social
Action, an unofficial United Methodist group. “Should this ruling stand,
there will be no limits as to who might be refused membership. Where
will each pastor draw the line? Can a person be refused membership based
on a person’s race or their immigration status? What of the person who
is divorced and remarried?”
Jim Winkler, top staff executive of the denomination’s Board of Church
and Society, said there is an agenda “to keep gay and lesbian people out
of our church. Folks will try to dress it up with references to the Discipline
and process and procedure, but that’s a cover story. Is there a
distinction between attendance and membership? Sure there is, but who
wants to go to a church where the pastor of the day has decided you are
not worthy to belong?”
The Rev. Troy Plummer, executive director of Reconciling Ministries
Network — an unofficial United Methodist group advocating full inclusion
of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons in the life of the
church — said his members are waiting for a “prophetic statement
calling for the full participation of LGBT persons in both membership
and ordination. The Judicial Council rulings must be reconsidered. The
underlying prejudice of ‘incompatibility’ must be addressed.”
People on both sides of the debate have used the Book of Discipline
to criticize or support the Judicial Council decision. The Rev. Rex D.
Matthews of the Candler School of Theology said there is no indication
in the Book of Discipline of any “condition” required prior to
the taking of membership vows other than baptism. The Rev. Riley B.
Case, in an analysis on the Confessing Movement site, said that in no
editions of the book was there a reference to pastors being accountable
to bishops, superintendents or clergy on matters of membership.
Two former Judicial Council members whose terms ended with the 2004
General Conference, Sally AsKew and Sally Geiss, sent a memo to United
Methodist Communications asking that the denominational slogan of “Open
Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” be discontinued, saying “such language
is false advertising.”
The Rev. Larry Hollon, top executive of United Methodist Communications,
and Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, president of the agency’s commission,
said the theme would continue to be used. They called the Judicial
Council’s interpretation of church law in the Johnson case contrary to
the spirit of the church and the teachings of Christ, “who rejected no
Many individual bishops have placed statements on their respective
conference Web sites in addition to the corporate statement issued by
the Council of Bishops. Bishop Peter Weaver, president of the council
and leader of the New England Annual Conference, has held a series of
gatherings in the conference for “Christian conversation and prayer.”
Bishop Violet Fisher
Bishop Violet L. Fisher of the New York West Area wrote a letter calling
church members to prayer and reflection, and she expressed her own
sense of pain. “I speak from the depths of my soul in regard to this
issue, where the painful memories of racial exclusion live in my being,”
“Pastors do have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership,
but no one has the right to reinterpret the gospel or our
denominational polity to mandate exclusion in the Body of Christ,” she
said. “A pastor does not get to decide whom he or she will serve, or
with whom he or she will walk on the journey. Those decisions are made
*Caldwell is a freelance writer based in High Point, N.C.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Two Judicial Council members add opinions to decision
Commentary: Council stands guilty of legislating from bench
Commentary: Judicial Council ruled properly in Virginia pastor case
United Methodist bishops affirm church membership open to all
Church court reinstates pastor who denied membership to gay man
Pastor denies membership to homosexual, placed on leave
Decision No. 1032
A Pastoral Letter to the People of The United Methodist Church from the Council of Bishops
Judicial Council Rules of Practice and Procedure