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Group defers gay issue to 2012


April 30, 2010 | MANILA, Philippines (UMNS)

A UMNS 2007 map 
courtesy of GCFA.
A UMNS 2007 map courtesy of GCFA.

In many United Methodist circles, debate over the role of gays and lesbians in the church sparks controversy and creates bitter divisions.

In order to avoid having their work overshadowed, the committee asked to craft a worldwide vision for The United Methodist Church decided to leave issues of ordination of gay and lesbian ministers to General Conference. At present, self-professed practicing homosexuals are not eligible for ordination.

“While some will view this as a victory for one side in the debate, the committee believes it best to advance the worldwide nature of the church and leave this process as it is,” said Kansas Area Bishop Scott Jones, chair of the committee that met April 19-22 in Manila.

In other actions, the Committee to Study the Worldwide Nature of The United Methodist Church also agreed to ask the 2012 General Conference to:

  • Grant more autonomy to regional United Methodist bodies while retaining the denomination’s unique connectional nature. That includes allowing regional bodies to determine if bishops are elected for life, or to shorter terms.
  • Shorten and simplify the Book of Discipline, now mainly North American in focus, so it can be used effectively around the world.
  • Continue the Council of Bishops as the key unifying force in the denomination.
  • Retain the Social Principles, which have guided the denomination’s Wesleyan commitment to social justice, in the Book of Discipline.
  • Retain doctrinal standards such as the Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith and General Rules as binding for the worldwide church.
Bishop Scott Jones
Bishop Scott Jones

After much discussion, the committee agreed more research and input are needed on the role of general agencies. That debate focused on which of the church’s general agencies are U.S.-focused, and which are truly worldwide in nature. A main issue is whether entities outside the United States should have their own agencies, or whether some general agencies should be located outside the United States.

Respectful dialogue

Despite varying views on the emotional issue of the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals, the hour-long conversation among the members of the Committee to Study the Worldwide Nature of The United Methodist Church remained civil and respectful.

The Rev. Kathy Stengel of the Western New York Annual (regional) Conference said taking ordination standards away from the General Conference would guarantee defeat of all committee recommendation at the 2012 General Conference.

“I am not willing to sacrifice the work of the committee over the issue of homosexuality,” said an emotional Marjorie Suchocki, a California theologian who supports ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians.

The Rev. Timothy McClendon of the South Carolina Annual Conference said committee members struggled with the issue, but decided “this was a core principle that needed to be held with the General Conference,” the church’s top legislative body.

McClendon added that the Judicial Council has ruled ordination “is not local, not provincial, but is worldwide.”

International vision

Created by the 2008 General Conference, the 20-member committee is seeking to develop a just, balanced framework for a denomination whose focus, historically dominated by the United States, is shifting to Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

The Rev. Forbes 
The Rev. Forbes Matonga

Members of the committee represent the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines. Its members include bishops, theologians, experts on church law, laypersons and ethnic caucus representatives.

One member, the Rev. Forbes Matonga of Zimbabwe, said the committee’s work is vital for United Methodists who live outside the United States.

“Connectionalism is not top down, but side by side. If we decentralize, we empower our denomination to be more involved regionally,” Matonga said. “By creating this structure, we are giving more legitimacy to our churches (outside the United States).”

Jones said, “We are making quite a list of how we might live more fully in our worldwide nature. We have seen a vision of The United Methodist Church as a worldwide embodiment of Christ.”

The committee adopted a vision statement to guide the rest of its work.

“We see a worldwide United Methodist Church driven to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. To live more fully into this vision, we are working toward deeper connections throughout the church, greater local authority, and more equitable sharing of power and representation around the world.”

The committee will next meet in August in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. That meeting will be preceded by a series of listening-post sessions in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia. The committee’s full report for the 2012 General Conference is due by July 2011.

*Drachler is communications consultant for the study committee.

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

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