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‘Extraordinary ordination’ has no United Methodist status, bishops say

The Rev. Susan J. Morrison asks Annie Britton (center) and Jenna Zirbel questions during their "extraordinary ordination" service on Oct. 19 at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Baltimore. A UMNS photo courtesy of Church Within a Church.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*

Nov. 10, 2008 | ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga.

The “extraordinary ordinations” of two women by the unofficial Church Within a Church group have “no official status” within The United Methodist Church, says the Council of Bishops.

Bishop Sally Dyck

In a Nov. 7 statement, the United Methodist bishops declared the ecumenical ordination of a lesbian and another woman who champions gay rights “was not approved by any United Methodist annual conference, board of ordained ministry or cabinet.” The ordination took place Oct. 19 at a United Methodist church in Baltimore.

The ordinations “belong to Church Within a Church,” according to the council of 69 active and 91 retired bishops from the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

Church Within a Church is a 6-year old organization of Methodists who describe themselves as "dedicated to being the inclusive church.” During the ecumenical ordination service, hands were laid on the two women by retired United Methodist Bishops Susan Morrison and Jesse DeWitt, along with leaders from the United Church of Christ, Catholic, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches and the women's sponsors.

While ordinations are ecclesial actions, the bishops said the ordination, “has no effect within The United Methodist Church,” has no official status, and will not qualify individuals for appointment within the denomination. The bishops upheld the clarity of the church’s proscription against ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

The 2008 General Conference, the top lawmaking body of The United Methodist Church, upheld the church’s stance that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Although the denomination does not recognize the ordinations, the interest in the service from United Methodists worldwide, as well as other religious and secular bodies, prompted the bishops to collaborate and release the response.

Effect of ordination

The statement represents the facts about the “extraordinary ordination” and outlines the actual effect of what the ordination means to the United Methodist Church, according to Minnesota Bishop Sally Dyck, a member of the task force that created the statement. “Church Within a Church is the one that ordained them, not The United Methodist Church,” she said.

The statement provides clarification about the United Methodist understanding, in part about ordination, “and that it is ecclesial bodies that do ordinations,” said Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops and leader of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.

The statement also removes doubt about the standing of the women as “ordinands” and their relationship to The United Methodist Church, and it affirms the bishops’ and church’s understanding regarding the policy against ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals. “It was a helpful clarification,” said Indiana Bishop Michael Coyner.

The ecumenical service was held at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Baltimore, in the episcopal area of Bishop John Schol of Washington. He expressed appreciation for the council’s statement, which he said “speaks for itself.”

As people express their faith, there are times when the expression goes beyond church structure and polity, noted Wisconsin Bishop Linda Lee, but that does not make the ordination valid. “Our word is clear as a council that we will uphold the Discipline as it is written until it changes,” she said.

A group of people wanted to ordain someone they felt had been rejected, added East Ohio Conference Bishop John Hopkins, but there “are no widespread implications to The United Methodist Church.”

Struggles regarding homosexuality

Mainline Protestant denominations have struggled for decades with issues surrounding homosexuality and ordination. While the United Methodist Church prohibits homosexual ordination, it welcomes homosexual members and considers them to be of sacred worth.

Bishop Gregory Palmer

Groups like Church Within a Church seek to change church policy and other entities work to maintain the church’s stance. These disagreements have sometimes evoked talk of schism in the church, but bishops of the church believe that perception is wrong.

“I don’t this is a barometer of it,” Dyck said. “There are some folks who are really out on the edges, and the majority of folk in the church are trying to find a way to live together.”

Lee, who is chairperson of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, agreed. “I do not believe it is an indication of schism,” she said. “I believe it is an indication of dissatisfaction.” The body continues to work toward unity and the majority of United Methodists still desire unity, she added.

Hopkins, chairperson of the churchwide group that brings vision, mission and money together at one table, said, “the church, since its beginning, has always headed toward schism.” He does not consider that the prevailing spirit because Church Within a Church and other groups “do what they need to do, but there is no intent to harm The United Methodist Church.”

No split forseen

There are people who are unhappy with their stance and will find ways to protest or engage in acts of disobedience against the church, Coyner said. “Some may leave the church, but I do not think the church is headed for a split,” he added.

Acknowledging the strength and diversity of the denomination, Schol said the church would continue to experience differences in the midst of a growing, changing, dynamic and global world. “The United Methodist Church is strong, and it is going to see its way through any controversies and any issues because in the end, it is not our church, it is God’s church, and God is going to have God’s way,” he declared.

Palmer believes the extraordinary ordination and other “renegade” actions generate conversation but he “is not persuaded that they promote dialogue at the highest levels, where we are really all at our best even when we have differing opinions.”

“My yearning is for us to find a way to stay and to hold and hang together” around the mission of making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, he added. “We can do that, but it takes the hard work of all who are involved in the church.”

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

NOTE: The statement from the United Methodist Council of Bishops adopted on Nov. 6 follows.

“On Sunday, Oct. 19, 2008, a non-United Methodist organization, Church Within a Church, held an ecumenical worship service which they called an “extra-ordinary ordination.” Church Within a Church shared that two United Methodists, one of whom is a “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” were ordained. The United Methodist Church is clear that it does not ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals (United Methodist Book of Discipline, paragraph 303.3).

The “ordination” has no effect within The United Methodist Church and was not approved by any annual conference, or by any Board of Ordained Ministry, or by any cabinet.

Ordinations are ecclesial actions. We believe these ordinations belong to Church Within A Church and they have no official status within our denomination and will not qualify individuals for appointment within The United Methodist Church.”

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