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Consultation will study impact of 2 church court rulings

Oct. 12, 2006

By Vicki Brown*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — A United Methodist agency is sponsoring a February consultation to study rulings by the denomination’s highest court in the case of a pastor who blocked a homosexual man from church membership.
The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry will gather a diverse group of bishops, seminary professors and pastors to probe the implications of Judicial Council decisions that upheld the right of the Rev. Ed Johnson, pastor of South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church, to deny membership to a practicing gay man.

The Rev. Jerome King Del Pino, top staff executive of the Nashville agency, said the heated debate across the denomination in the wake of the council's decisions highlights the need for focused, careful and deep-running dialogue about the theological, ecclesial and pastoral implications of the council's action.

"What is needed now is less emotional heat and more theological light," Del Pino said.

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The Rev. Ed Johnson
Johnson was placed on involuntary leave in 2005 by his clergy peers in the Virginia Annual (regional) Conference after he blocked a practicing gay man from taking membership vows in the church. Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer upheld the action, but at the Judicial Council's fall meeting last year, the court found in favor of Johnson and reinstated him.

In Decision 1031, the Judicial Council ruled that Johnson's due process rights were violated when the conference transformed an administrative complaint against him into a judicial complaint. And in Decision 1032, the council ruled that the pastor in charge of a local church has the authority to determine a person’s readiness for membership. The council rejected appeals to reconsider those decisions.

Working group participants

Hendrik Pieterse, director of scholarly research and book editor, is organizing the Feb. 15-16 consultation, to be held at the Learning Center at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville.

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Bishop Timothy Whitaker
Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the Florida Annual Conference and retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert of Brentwood, Tenn., have agreed to take part in the discussion.

Other participants will include scholars William Abraham, Perkins School of Theology, Dallas; Leicester Longden, University of Dubuque (Iowa) Theological Seminary; Rex D. Matthews, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta; and Elaine Robinson, Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth.

The working group will also include Cheryl Jefferson Bell, a district superintendent from the Kansas West Annual (regional) Conference, as well as pastors Sandra Cabrera of Dallas, Mark Horst of Stillwater, Minn., Martin D. McLee of Boston, and Melissa Meyers of Sheridan, Ill. In addition, several staff members of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry will be part of the working group.

"The issue of homosexuality is important in its own right and merits ongoing, thoughtful analysis, but this consultation is not a referendum on homosexuality," Pieterse said. "Instead, our aim is to offer a space for careful reflection on a set of theological issues raised by the council's decision that can have far-reaching implications for how United Methodists understand the meaning of membership, the nature of the church and the integrity of the church's appointed leadership."

"Our hope in gathering a theologically diverse group of church leaders in Nashville next February is not only for much-needed theological clarity on the issues but also for a shared theological framework that can guide United Methodists across the globe as they engage these issues in their places of ministry," Pieterse said.

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Bishop Melvin G. Talbert
Statement planned

After the group considers papers dealing with the theological implications of the rulings, the members will attempt to craft a statement outlining the results of their deliberation. The statement may include points of disagreement or agreement, agreed-upon insights or conclusions, as well as any desire for further dialogue.

"Regardless of which side of the debate one takes, it is clear that the Judicial Council's actions will have fundamental implications for the nature and practice of leadership in the United Methodist Church in the future," Del Pino said. "As the agency overseeing the church's licensed and ordained leadership, (the board) is pleased to offer a hospitable space in which these issues can be debated in the best spirit of Methodist conferencing."

*Brown is an associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

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