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Homosexuality debate heats up


12:30 P.M. EST March 2, 2011

Book of Discipline 2008 .A UMNS photo illustration by Ronny Perry.
Book of Discipline 2008 .A UMNS photo illustration by Ronny Perry. View in Photo Gallery

A call from 36 retired bishops for The United Methodist Church to eliminate its ban on gay and lesbian clergy has outraged some members and encouraged others.

In the past month, United Methodist-related groups on both sides of the ordination dispute have issued strong responses.

And the debate has hit home for individual United Methodists who are either gay or have struggled with unwanted same-sex attractions. Two men in particular, coming at the issue from different personal perspectives, have shared reactions of both hope and dismay in interviews with United Methodist News Service.

The retired bishops’ statement has focused new attention on the issue as the church approaches the one-year countdown to its 2012 lawmaking assembly. When bishops talk, people tend to listen.

Condemnation and praise

When the retired bishops issued their Jan. 31 statement, the first responses came from fellow bishops. Some expressed support and others disappointment, but all of them affirmed their commitment to uphold church law.

Other United Methodists are also having their say.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition, representing six unofficial evangelical renewal caucuses in the denomination, called the bishops’ document “woefully inadequate” in a Feb. 17 statement.

The retired bishops did not address “the clear pronouncements of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments and almost 2,000 years of Christian history,” the coalition said. “The teaching of The United Methodist Church on human sexuality is consistent with the teaching of the church universal.”

However, the retired bishops received an “Amen!” from the Common Witness Coalition, which encompasses three unofficial church caucuses that advocate for greater inclusion of gay and lesbian members.

In a Feb. 25 statement, the coalition said it hoped the bishops’ call will become “a catalyst for a new ‘watershed moment’ in the life of the United Methodist Church!”

The Black Methodists for Church Renewal, an official caucus for black United Methodists, also endorsed the retired bishops’ statement at its annual meeting on Feb. 25, though the vote was not unanimous. The other ethnic caucuses have not officially weighed in on the retired bishops’ statement.

Delegates to the 2008 United Methodist General Conference meet in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
Delegates to the 2008 United Methodist General Conference meet in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
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The Book of Discipline, the United Methodist law book, states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

The retired bishops’ Statement of Counsel to the Church asks that this passage be removed. About 42 percent of the denomination’s 85 retired bishops have signed the statement.

Only General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, can change the Book of Discipline.

The subject of homosexuality has sparked discussion at each quadrennial General Conference since 1972, and delegates consistently have voted to keep the restriction. Neither active nor retired bishops are allowed to vote at the gathering.

But both supporters and opponents of the church’s current stand expect the topic to surface again when General Conference next meets April 24-May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Fla.

Not an abstract issue

For many United Methodists, homosexuality is not an abstract issue that comes up at each General Conference but something that affects their daily life and the way they serve out their ministry.

Chett Pritchett said he first recognized his calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ while a student at United Methodist-affiliated West Virginia Wesleyan College. Around that time, he also realized he was gay.

The Rev. Troy Plummer is the executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, one of the groups that signed the Common Witness Coalition statement. A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield.
The Rev. Troy Plummer is the executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, one of the groups that signed the Common Witness Coalition statement. A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield. View in Photo Gallery

“For me, my faith in Jesus Christ and my acknowledgement of my sexual orientation have always happened in tandem,” Pritchett said.

He studied at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington initially with the goal of simply learning more about religion. His congregation, Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington, helped him discern that he had the gifts and graces for ordained ministry. So he started the ordination process in the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference.

Pritchett said he was never asked about his sexual orientation, and his candidacy process was largely positive. Still, he ultimately decided to withdraw from the process partly to be in solidarity with his gay and lesbian friends. He said he “didn’t want to be part of the problem” that was causing so many to leave the church.

He remains an active, engaged layperson at Dumbarton. The United Methodist Church is his home, Pritchett said, and he wants to help the church be an open and hospitable place for all people.

He called the retired bishops’ statement a “huge step forward.”

“I realize it brings difficulty within the Council of Bishops for the active bishops,” he said. “But as a gay man, to read that statement, it made me realize that there are leaders in this church who understand this issue and who understand how it has affected so many people over the years.”

Not everyone who experiences same-sex attraction sees it as part of God’s plan, as a man in the southern United States can attest.

The United Methodist, who asked that his name not be used, said he has “struggled with same-sex attraction” for much of his life.

“I have never lived a gay lifestyle,” he said. “I don’t identify myself as a gay person, but I have wrestled with those feelings in my life. While my church and my family never bashed homosexual people, I just sensed that this is not what God was asking of me or what he wanted for me.”

He grappled with his desires in secret and shame until he was in seminary and discovered a Christian ministry that offered a support group for people dealing with different kinds of “sexual brokenness.” He said he realized for the first time that he wasn’t the only Christian dealing with unwanted attractions. That gave him hope.

He has since discovered Transforming Congregations, which helps United Methodist churches minister to “the sexually confused, broken and sinful.” Transforming Congregations was among the unofficial caucuses that denounced the retired bishops’ statement.

The man now is married and has two children, but he says he still deals with same-sex attraction and thinks it will likely be a life-long struggle.

“I feel like I have gained power over it when I choose to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “It’s just like any other temptation that faces any other Christian. I still have a choice on whether to fall to temptation or whether to walk with Christ and overcome it.”

He ultimately decided not to continue on the ordination track, in part because of his struggle. He thinks the retired bishops who advocate changing the Book of Discipline mean well but are wrongheaded.

“I think all Christians, clergy or non-clergy, are called to holiness — to be set apart in life — and we are all called to pursue and go on to perfection as (John) Wesley said,” the man said. “As I read Scripture and as I pray to God … I’ve always felt that God had made it very clear that (homosexuality) was not a life God that wanted for me personally or really for any of his followers.”

Still, he — like Pritchett — said the church should not turn anyone away, gay, lesbian or otherwise.

Issue of Scripture

The Renewal and Reform Coalition includes The Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church, Good News, Lifewatch, RENEW, Transforming Congregations and United Methodist Action.

The Rev. Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News magazine, one of the groups that signed on to the Renewal and Reform Coalition statement.
The Rev. Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News magazine, one of the groups that signed on to the Renewal and Reform Coalition statement.
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The Common Witness Coalition includes Affirmation, Methodist Federation for Social Action and Reconciling Ministries Network.

The disagreement between the two coalitions often boils down to a different understanding of Scripture.

The Rev. Rob Renfroe, the president and publisher of Good News magazine, said the retired bishops in their statement fail to treat Scripture as authoritative in determining sexual ethics.

“We see the Bible very differently, and the saddest thing is that we see Jesus very differently,” Renfroe said.

He worries whether some of the retired bishops agree with John 14:6 that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the father except through him. Homosexuality, he said, is just the presenting issue in this division.

The Common Witness Coalition’s statement offered another take, citing Jesus’ reminder that the two greatest commandments are for people to love God with all their heart, soul and might, and their neighbors as themselves.

The standard for interpretation, this coalition insisted, “is always found, first and foremost, in the consequences it has for our complete giving of ourselves to God, and … how it expresses that complete love of God in our love for others and self.”

The retired bishops “breathe Gospel life into putting in policy what we know to be true,” said the Rev. Troy Plummer, the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network.

Both coalitions don’t expect the discussion to end anytime soon.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

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

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