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Pastor accepts once-rejected gay man as member

A UMNS Report by Linda Green*
April 4, 2007

The pastor of a Virginia United Methodist church has granted membership to the gay man whose 2005 denial of membership by the previous pastor prompted controversy across the denomination on the issues of homosexuality and pastoral authority.

During worship services on March 11 at South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church, the Rev. Barry Burkholder accepted the man's transfer of membership from a Baptist church to South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church.

The development follows a series of rulings related to the case, including one on pastoral authority, by the denomination's highest court.

"The Judicial Council's ruling says that the pastor of the church is the person in authority to determine whether an individual is ready to receive the vows of membership," Burkholder told United Methodist News Service.

"And having spoken with this individual and him having professed Christ as his savior, his belief that Jesus Christ died for his sins tells me that he is ready to receive the vows of membership."

The Rev. Edward H. Johnson had refused to receive the man into membership in 2005, saying the man would neither repent nor seek to live a lifestyle that does not include homosexuality.

The man has continued to worship at the South Hill Church and to participate in its music ministry. Meanwhile, Johnson since has been appointed pastor at Dahlgren (Va.) United Methodist Church.

Homosexuality and the church

Like many other Protestant denominations, The United Methodist Church has struggled with the issue of homosexuality for more than 30 years.


 Bishop Charlene Kammerer

In its Book of Discipline, the church declares the practice to be "incompatible with Christian teaching." But while the church has proscriptions against ordination of "practicing" homosexual clergy and clergy conducting same-sex ceremonies in United Methodist churches, it has no specific law about church membership and homosexual practice.

The Virginia case is among several to bring issues related to homosexuality before the denomination's high court.

Johnson was placed on involuntary leave of absence in June 2005 by a vote of fellow clergy of the Virginia Annual Conference after he refused to receive the man into membership. Four months later, the nine-member Judicial Council ruled that United Methodist pastors have authority to decide who becomes a member of a local church and reinstated Johnson.

Specifically, the Judicial Council ruled that "the pastor in charge of a United Methodist church or charge is solely responsible for making the determination of a person's readiness to receive the vows of membership."

Burkholder said he based his decision to receive the man into membership on the council's ruling, the criteria for membership found in Paragraph 214 of the 2004 Book of Discipline and the invitation for membership found in the Service of Word and Table 1 of the United Methodist Hymnal.

"Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. This is my definition" (of membership), he said.

Following the close of the March 11 worship service, the man and two others who transferred membership that day were greeted by most of the church's members, according to Burkholder.

"A vast majority of the congregation came forward and warmly welcomed all three of these people into the life of the church," said the pastor, adding that he was "very gratified at seeing that."

Thoughts from the bishop

Burkholder said he made the decision to accept the man into membership because "that is what I was charged with doing when I was ordained." He said it is important to "understand that there has never been any coercion, there has never been any suggestion on the part of the bishop as to the action that I took here at the local church."

Bishop Charlene Kammerer, in an interview with United Methodist News Service, said she was unaware of the latest development until Burkholder contacted her afterward.

"So what this conveyed to me was that another United Methodist pastor in the Virginia. Conference - through his own getting to know the man and counseling with him spiritually and also with working with other leaders in the church - felt very comfortable inviting him to join," Kammerer said.

The congregation's continuing struggle with the issue and its spiritual discernment "helped the new pastor be clear in issuing the invitation," she said.

The congregation and its pastor have taken a "very courageous step," she said. She added that she could not imagine what kind of courage it has taken for the man "to continue to be an active participant as a baptized Christian in this congregation where he had been clearly rejected and set apart."

"I thank God for the ways that I believe that Christ is continuing to work in his life," she said.

Ongoing dialogue

The Judicial Council ruling on the Virginia case was the subject of a denominational consultation last February in Nashville, Tenn., where pastors, bishops, theologians, seminary deans and denominational staff gathered to discuss its implications. The consultation focused on the nature, practice and integrity of the church's leadership.

South Hill United Methodist Church is a “local congregation who has struggled mightily to understand the meaning of membership and what really has happened to them and particularly to the man in this journey.”–Bishop Charlene Kammerer

While the ruling uncovered conflicts in church membership criteria, ecclesiology and the authority given to pastors, church leaders expect the issues will continue to be debated across United Methodism.

"What has happened here in the same congregation is that one pastor made a decision and another pastor made a different decision," Kammerer said.

She singled out the South Hill church as a "local congregation who has struggled mightily to understand the meaning of membership and what really has happened to them and particularly to the man in this journey."

The bishop said there are members of South Hill who disapprove of the man's lifestyle and sexual orientation, but "these same members would not exclude him from membership in The United Methodist Church based on that reality alone."

She said it is her hope and prayer "that no United Methodist pastor would use discretion to bar anyone from membership in The United Methodist 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.

Related stories

Consultation examines ruling on pastoral authority

Judicial Council denies reconsideration of two decisions

United Methodist bishops affirm church membership open to all

Church court reinstates pastor who denied membership to gay man

Pastor denies membership to homosexual member, placed on leave


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