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Bishops began discernment process to address same-sex union issue

April 28, 1998      By United Methodist News Service

LINCOLN, Neb. - United Methodist bishops are searching the Scriptures and examining church tradition as they work toward making a statement on same-sex unions and church authority.

In  their semi-annual meeting here, April 27, the more than 100 bishops from around the world are trying to determine how best to speak about the denomination's position on homosexuality, same-sex unions, church unity, and the source and meaning of the church's authority.

The bishops are entering into a "discernment and Christian conferencing process," in which they are examining what the Bible and tradition can teach them about talking and praying with one another to determine God's will for the church. The bishops hope to discover principles that will help them make a pastoral statement on the divisive issues facing the church before their meeting ends on May 1, said Bishop Ann Sherer, of Chesterfield, Mo. 

Christian conferencing involves people opening themselves to God's vision, Sherer said. They lay aside their own agendas to allow the Lord to move them toward a higher good and God's will.

During their roundtable discussions this week, the bishops are discussing church authority, theological and doctrinal moorings and the church's mission.

They plan to make a statement or statements on the status of the church's position on homosexuality and same-gender unions. They also will adopt a statement on requests from around the denomination for a special session of General Conference, the church's highest legislative body, to deal with issues related to homosexuality. The conference ordinarily meets every four years, and it last met in 1996.

As the council began its meeting, Bishop Kenneth Carder, of Nashville, Tenn., cautioned his colleagues not to lose focus on the world's crises. He reminded them to continuously pray that God will keep them focused on His mission to the world.

The bishops dealing with the fallout from the recent clergy trial of Nebraska pastor Jimmy Creech. The minister was acquitted March 13 of violating church rules when he performed a same-sex ceremony at First United Methodist Church in Omaha. Creech's case centered on the argument that the Social Principles, which include proscriptions against same-sex union, are advisory, not church law.

After the trial, groups seeking enforceable prohibitions against same-sex ceremonies called  for the Council of Bishops to request a special session of the General Conference.

In addition, the executive committee of the churchwide Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns requested the bishops have a special meeting to discuss issues raised in the recent "In Search of Unity" document. The paper was issued by participants after a two-part dialogue on theological diversity in the United Methodist Church. The dialogue sessions, which involved conservatives and liberals alike, were sponsored by the commission. 

The bishops plan to respond to the commission's request for a meeting on the document's recommendations.

"It is our intention to come from this council a clear statement for the church that we will corporately own and implement," Carder said.

What may be more important than the forthcoming statement is how the bishops arrive at their position, he said. The process of making a statement may be as helpful for the church and council as the statement itself, he said. "In the covenant community of Christ, how we deal with conflict is as much a witness to Jesus Christ as the issues creating the conflict."

As never before, the world is interested in what United Methodist bishops have to say and how they say it, Sherer said. The world is watching to see how the bishops deal with divisive issues and how their deliberations differ from those of other political bodies, she said.

The council, Sherer said, wants to show the church and the world that "it is possible for bishops to conference together until God opens a way for us to move into the future together."    

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