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United Methodist bishops keep Episcopalians in prayer

11/5/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

Head-and-shoulders photos of Bishops Ruediger Minor, William Oden, Susan Hassinger and Lindsey Davis are available at

By Tim Tanton*

WASHINGTON (UMNS)---United Methodist leaders say they are watching and praying for their brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Church, where talk of schism is increasing following the installation of that denomination's first openly gay bishop.WASHINGTON (UMNS)---United Methodist leaders say they are watching and praying for their brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Church, where talk of schism is increasing following the installation of that denomination's first openly gay bishop.

"I see no immediate implications for the United Methodist Church," said Bishop Ruediger Minor, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops. Minor leads the denomination's Eurasia Area, with offices in Moscow.

The Anglican communion is different from the United Methodist connection, Minor said, noting that Anglican dioceses are more independent from one another. "I see little effect on United Methodism because of the completely different form of church government polity."

Minor and others attending the Nov. 2-7 meeting of the United Methodist Council of Bishops said they are praying for the Episcopalians. Bishop Lindsey Davis of the North Georgia Area said the situation was a prayer concern for his covenant group, which gathers each morning before the bishops begin their general meeting.

The Episcopal Church consecrated V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire on Nov. 2, intensifying the controversy that began when he became his denomination's first openly gay candidate for the post. Anglican leaders from other countries, along with conservative Episcopal Church leaders in the United States, warned that the consecration could cause a split with the U.S. branch of Anglicanism.

United Methodist Bishop Susan Hassinger, who leads her denomination's New England Area, was among the ecumenical guests at Robinson's consecration ceremony. She said it was important for her to attend since Robinson would be a colleague in one of the five states that she oversees. She also said that her attendance was a way of showing respect for another denomination's polity. She drew a parallel by noting that although the Roman Catholic Church doesn't recognize her as a bishop, individual Roman Catholics have addressed her as bishop out of respect for United Methodist polity.

At the service, Robinson acknowledged that many in his church were pained over his election, Hassinger said. While trusting that people wouldn't leave the church, Robinson said those who did would be welcomed back as brothers and sisters in Christ. He also said the church had an opportunity to show that it is a loving fellowship by welcoming all God's children, according to Hassinger.

"I found it to be a very gracious statement in the midst of a difficult situation," she said.

The United Methodist and Episcopal churches have shared roots - the Methodist movement was founded by Anglican clergyman John Wesley in the 18th century - and the denominations are engaged in ongoing dialogue. Bishop William Oden of Dallas leads the United Methodist Church's team in those talks.

"I am in touch with the Episcopal Church ecumenical office, which staffs the discussion," he said. "There is a tremendous amount of pain that is going on right now in the Episcopal Church, and we simply are having a prayerful wait-and-see attitude."

He noted that some members of the Episcopal Church's dialogue team resigned and were replaced. The next dialogue meeting will be in January at United Methodist-related Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. "We anticipate the dialogue will go forward," he said.

Oden added that discussions are under way for a joint meeting of the Episcopal and United Methodist bishops in 2005.

Observers have drawn comparisons between the Episcopal Church and other mainline Protestant denominations dealing with issues related to homosexuality.

"It's an issue all mainline churches have been struggling with and each has been trying to be faithful to Christian love, to Christian tradition and its form of church polity," Minor said.

In its Book of Discipline, the United Methodist Church states that homosexuals are people of sacred worth, but it declares the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching. The book forbids the ordination and appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

Davis doesn't see the Episcopal Church's experience as instructive for United Methodists. "The polity of the Episcopal Church is quite different than ours, so I don't know that we'll learn much from their experience. I think that issue, however, might make our discussions more intense, if that's possible."

The United Methodist Church's top legislative assembly, the General Conference, meets April 27-May 7 in Pittsburgh.

The crisis in the Episcopal Church won't have an impact on legislation before General Conference, but it could affect the spirit of the assembly, according to the Rev. Bruce Robbins, top staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

"How people relate to one another across the chasms of difference are very important," he said. United Methodists can learn from the graceful way in which the Episcopalians have responded to the conflict, he said.

The church has been sensitive and responsive, Robbins said. "I believe that grace has worked through the (Episcopal) church."

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*Tanton is United Methodist News Service's managing editor.

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