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Pastor is church’s first openly gay bishop candidate

The Rev. Frank Wulf delivers his address as candidate for United Methodist bishop to the Western Jurisdictional Conference. A UMNS photo by Linda Sullivan.

By Marta W. Aldrich*
July 22, 2008 | PORTLAND, Ore. (UMNS)

Standing before an assembly that would elect two bishops, the Rev. Frank Wulf shared his problem as a candidate for one of the top clergy positions in The United Methodist Church.

"The problem is that I come as a gay man, and I know where our church stands on the issue of same-sex orientation," Wulf said in his candidacy address before the Western Jurisdictional Conference, which represents United Methodists in the western United States, Guam and other U.S. territories in the Pacific.

The delegates, who later approved four statements challenging the denomination’s position on homosexuality, listened intently as Wulf continued: "And I know that the church says … a practicing self-avowed homosexual shall not be ordained or appointed within our church."

By extension, Wulf noted that his candidacy created a quandary for jurisdictional delegates in a denomination that consistently has declared homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Episcopal candidates gather for a group photograph. A UMNS photo by
Marta W. Aldrich.

"I know that if, by some chance, I were ever to be elected as a bishop within this jurisdiction or any jurisdiction, that all hell would break loose …," he said, explaining later that he would anticipate church judicial charges, threats and hate mail.

He challenged them: "If in fact you feel this is what God is calling you to do … then I would be willing to be your bishop. But if the Western Jurisdiction is not at the point where it is willing … to deal with the maelstrom that will occur, then I am certainly not the person you should elect as bishop in this jurisdiction."

Wulf then left the podium—the only one to receive a standing ovation for a candidacy address among more than a dozen clergy members asking that day to become bishop. In so doing, he became the first openly gay candidate for the United Methodist episcopacy. (During his 2004 candidacy, Wulf had not openly shared his sexual orientation.)

Two days later, in the late-night hours of July 18, as delegates struggled to elect their second and final bishop, Wulf went to the podium again—this time to withdraw his name from consideration. For the previous two days, he had consistently finished sixth in the balloting among 19 clergy members receiving votes. At this hour, it was apparent that he would not be elected.

"I am withdrawing from this race for the episcopacy, but I’m doing so with the hope that a gay man or a lesbian will be able to be elected bishop of The United Methodist Church. … I know that day is coming," Wulf said to applause and another standing ovation.

Mixed reaction

As word of Wulf's openly gay candidacy spread elsewhere, reaction was mixed but passionate on all sides.

"Even though he was not elected, I think it was a significant milestone for The United Methodist Church," said Mary Larson, chairperson of the pastor parish committee at United University Church, a United Methodist/Presbyterian congregation that Wulf leads in Los Angeles.

"He made the decision to run as an openly gay man, and it was a challenge to the whole church to deal more directly with this issue. … He was not a token candidate just to make a point; he was a serious candidate," said Larson, who attended the conference in support of Wulf.

Others countered that the Western Jurisdiction, which historically has supported the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church, is not of one mind on the issue. They noted that a large number side with the denominational stance on human sexuality as passed by General Conference, the church’s top legislative body, which met last spring in Fort Worth, Texas. They said church law is based on Scripture and longstanding Christian tradition, and that it serves as a covenant for the entire denomination, including Wulf and others advocating for change.

Such advocacy is a perplexing statement to the world at best and a subversive act of teaching at worst, according to the Rev. David Parker, senior pastor of Central United Protestant Church, an 1,100-member United Methodist congregation in Richland, Wash.

Delegates confer between ballots.
A UMNS photo by Marta W. Aldrich.


"To change our official stance and even advocate for that change is both harmful and subversive, not only to The United Methodist Church but to the larger global Christian church and our commitment to understanding holiness in every dimension of life," said Parker. "…I haven’t run into any self-avowed homosexuals willing to remain celibate and teach and advocate that God has a different and healing vision for sexual practice."

The Rev. Maxie Dunnam, a well-known United Methodist speaker, author and educator, said the fact that an openly gay person would run for bishop shows the depth of division with United Methodism.

"It also shows how far removed the leadership of the UM Church in that jurisdiction is––not only from the consistent witness of United Methodism but from the church universal and the vast majority of Christians around the world," said Dunnam, chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.

Dunnam said bishops are to be both symbols of unity and defenders of the faith.

"What bothers me most is that our bishops in that jurisdiction (and some in other jurisdictions), while not openly violating the law of our church on the issue of the practice of homosexuality, are pastorally and prophetically supporting persons and positions that do violate our stand on this issue," he said. "I am deeply troubled that they seem oblivious to the fact that their failure to lead prophetically and pastorally in support of the church's doctrine and discipline contributes greatly to division and the threat of schism."

Jurisdictional duty

The Western Jurisdictional Conference’s primary tasks during its July 16-19 gathering were to elect two bishops and then to assign all of its bishops to geographical areas of responsibility for the next four years, starting Sept. 1.

Wulf had agreed to be nominated from the floor at the urging of members across the jurisdiction’s gay/lesbian/bisexual/transsexual community.

"There’s no question that he is recognized as the community’s natural leader," Larson said.

As for Wulf, he believes his candidacy represented "a growing movement within the church to understand another way."

"When General Conference ends and questions related to the Book of Discipline have been voted on, it looks like it’s all settled and done. But what that uniformity of the Discipline really does for us is to disguise a disunity that exists in our church," he said in an interview with United Methodist News Service.

"I think my running provides an opportunity for us to talk across those boundaries—to listen to each other, read Scriptures together, pray together, fast together—and hopefully not just to shout insults at each other. I feel that God called me to this moment."

*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


Candidacy Address of the Rev. Frank Wulf

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