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Judicial Council decisions stir debate across church

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The Rev. Ed Johnson
Nov. 29, 2005

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.

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The Rev. Bruce Robbins
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.”

“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 confusing.

“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 practice.”

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.

‘False advertising’

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 one.”

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Bishop Violet Fisher
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 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,” she wrote.

“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 by God.”

*Caldwell is a freelance writer based in High Point, N.C.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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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