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United Methodist bishops affirm church membership open to all

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Bishop Janice K. Riggle Huie
Nov. 3, 2005

By Tim Tanton*

LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS) — Homosexuality is not a barrier to membership in the United Methodist Church, the denomination’s bishops said Nov. 2, two days after the church’s top court supported a pastor’s refusal to allow a gay man to join.

“While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier,” the bishops said in their pastoral letter to the people of the United Methodist Church.

In a ruling announced Oct. 31, the Judicial Council supported the Rev. Ed Johnson of South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church in his decision not to allow a gay man to join his congregation. The man was a choir member and had been meeting with Johnson about transferring membership from another denomination.

Johnson was placed on a yearlong involuntary leave of absence by fellow pastors during the clergy session of the Virginia Annual (regional) Conference last June. The Judicial Council upheld Johnson’s action, citing the authority given to clergy by the church’s Book of Discipline. The court ordered that the pastor be reinstated to his previous status.

The ripple effect of the court’s decision was felt immediately in Lake Junaluska, where the Council of Bishops is holding its weeklong fall meeting. The council spent at least four hours in closed session working on a statement responding to the ruling.

“With the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, we affirm ?that God’s grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community,’” the bishops said, quoting from the Social Principles in the Book of Discipline. “?We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.’

“We also affirm our Wesleyan practice that pastors are accountable to the bishop, superintendent and the clergy on matters of ministry and membership,” the bishops said.

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Bishop Peter D. Weaver
The Council of Bishops unanimously adopted the pastoral letter in closed session.

The announcement of the court’s ruling caused “considerable conversation within the council,” said Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, who led the seven-bishop writing team that worked on the statement. Huie oversees the church’s Texas Annual (regional) Conference.

Many of the bishops had received calls and e-mail from pastors and lay people in their conferences who were “greatly troubled” by the ruling and were asking for clarification, she told United Methodist News Service.

“We wanted our response to be thoughtful, prayerful and to speak to the church,” she said.

As the bishops worked on the statement, it became clear that there was unity within the council regarding the membership of gays in the United Methodist Church, she said. “I don’t think it’s going too far to say the council is of one mind that gay and lesbian people can be members of the United Methodist Church.”

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.

During oral hearings before the Judicial Council Oct. 27, the Rev. Tom Thomas of Virginia, speaking for Johnson, argued that the pastor “drew the line not at the homosexual person but at homosexual practice.” Johnson, who was at the hearing, did not address the court.

Virginia Bishop Charlene Kammerer defended the suspension of Johnson, stating that the Constitution emphasizes inclusiveness and not exclusiveness, and that only allowing participation in the church “amounts to second-class citizenship.”

In their pastoral letter, the bishops said they “uphold and affirm” that the church’s top legislative body, the General Conference, “has clearly spoken through the denomination’s Constitution on inclusiveness and justice for all as it relates to church membership.”

The bishops cited the Constitution’s declaration that all people shall be eligible to attend the church’s worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, be admitted as baptized members, “and upon taking the vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection.”

“The invitation that this (Judicial Council) ruling gives to all of us is to think carefully about the meaning of United Methodist membership,” said Bishop Peter Weaver, president of the council and leader of the church’s New England Conference.

The ruling provides an opportunity “to think about how we are inclusive of persons who are in our communities and how we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” he said. Making disciples is a theme of the bishops’ fall meeting and their focus for 2005-08. Weaver noted that earlier on Nov. 2, the council had heard a major presentation on evangelism by a Duke Divinity School theologian.

Regarding a pastor’s authority to make decisions about membership, Weaver said: “The local pastor does have authority, but it’s in the context of the theology and values of the United Methodist Church.”

The bishops will discuss other possible responses to the ruling as their meeting continues, he said. The meeting, which began Oct. 30, ends Nov. 4.

Weaver is already responding in his own New England Conference by setting up four regional opportunities for Christian conversation about the Judicial Council ruling.

The Council of Bishops comprises the top clergy leaders in the nearly 11 million-member United Methodist Church. The council has 69 active bishops and about 100 retired bishops from the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

*Tanton is managing editor for United Methodist News Service.

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

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"There is unity among the council."
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