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Florida UM Bishop: "the covenant that exists among United Methodists has been breached."


Timothy W. Whitaker
Resident Bishop, Florida Area

The following is my statement about the verdict of the church trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann of the Pacific Northwest Conference in Washington.

The Rev. Karen Dammann had informed Bishop Elias G. Galvan that she is in a same-sex relationship with her partner and requested an appointment to a congregation. Bishop Galvan refused to offer her an appointment because of Paragraph 304.3 of The Book of Discipline which states, “Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” Bishop Galvan’s decision was sent to the Judicial Council for review. The Judicial Council ruled that Bishop Galvan could not deny her an appointment, but he could supervise the adjudication of a complaint against her in order to follow the fair provisions of The Book of Discipline. A complaint was made against the Rev. Dammann, and Bishop Galvan sent the complaint to a counsel for the Church. Both the counsel for the Church and the counsel for the respondent, the Rev. Dammann, presented their cases to the committee on investigation of the Pacific Northwest Conference. The committee on investigation voted not to hold a church trial. Bishop Galvan requested that the committee on appeals of the Western Jurisdiction review the case, and the jurisdictional committee upheld the action of the conference committee on investigation. Then Bishop Galvan appealed this decision to the Judicial Council which ordered the church trial. At the church trial the Rev. Dammann was acquitted of the charge against her.

The provisions of The Book of Discipline for the adjudication of a complaint have been followed throughout the process of responding to the Rev. Dammann’s acknowledgment to Bishop Galvan that she is in a same-sex relationship with her partner. Bishop Galvan has exercised his responsibility to deal with her acknowledgement of her relationship with her partner. Nevertheless, the decisions made by members of the Pacific-Northwest Conference represent a refusal to abide by the policy established by the General Conference and included in The Book of Discipline.

The Book of Discipline contains the rules by which The United Methodist Church orders its life. Insofar as these rules pertain to substantive issues of doctrine and discipline, they should be interpreted as nothing less than expressions of the covenant by which United Methodists agree to live the Christian life together. The verdict of the church trial in the Pacific-Northwest Conference is a violation of the covenant that exists among United Methodists. The fact that the process in The Book of Discipline for adjudicating a complaint was followed or that arguments were presented at the church trial that statements in The Book of Discipline may be interpreted as being ambiguous do not negate the most important reality, which that the covenant among United Methodists has been violated.

The United Methodist Church has always granted its members the freedom to disagree with the terms of our covenant with one another or to try to change them by presenting petitions to the General Conference. For decades there have been emotional disagreements about homosexuality expressed at sessions of the General Conference. At General Conference and at other venues both sides of the issue of how the Church should view the practice of homosexuality have been expressed. Those who seek a revision of the Church’s position believe that the prohibitions against homosexual practice in Scripture and Christian tradition should be placed in the context of Israel’s rejection of sexual practices in the pagan temples of the ancient Near East and the Christian church’s rejection of permissiveness and pederasty in the Graeco-Roman world. They believe that a covenant of fidelity by a same-sex couple is a different practice than the homosexual practices prohibited in Scripture and tradition. They view the present position of the Church to be cruel, unjust and exclusionary. Those who support the Church’s position believe that the prohibitions against homosexual practice in Scripture and tradition should be placed in the context of the whole teaching of Scripture which affirms that the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness are the revelation of the divine order for the sexual life of human beings. They believe that the Church should adhere to this divine order rather than accommodate to ideas and practices acceptable in Western societies. They support justice for homosexuals in civil society and hospitality toward all homosexual persons, but they believe that the public teaching and moral guidance of the Church about human sexuality should be faithful to the witness of Scripture and consistent with the teaching of the transcultural historic and global Christian community. These different assessments of homosexuality amount to rather fundamental disagreements about the interpretation of Scripture, the relationship of church and culture, and the meaning of human sexuality in light of divine revelation.

These disagreements have existed in the Church for decades. What is different after the church trial in Washington is that the unity of the Church is being tested in a new way. Until now the debate about homosexuality has been referred to the General Conference for resolution through legislation that is published in The Book of Discipline. Now there exists in the Church practices that are contrary to the legislation passed by the General Conference because of the refusal of some members of an annual conference to be accountable to the intention of the General Conference. As a consequence, the covenant that exists among United Methodists has been breached.

I shall support every effort to repair this breach of our covenant. I shall offer moral support for attempts to propose new legislation to the 2004 General Conference that might create the conditions for greater accountability to the intentions of the General Conference during the process of adjudicating a complaint against an ordained member of an annual conference. I shall also support making appeals to those who would attempt to breach our covenant to abide by our agreements made in the General Conference in the interest of the unity of the Church. Within the terms of our covenant we can continue to reflect, debate and seek the illumination of the Holy Spirit regarding the discipline of our Church for how to order our sexual lives in ways that are faithful to the purposes of the living God revealed in Jesus Christ. All of us should do everything we can to restore the covenant we have made.

We should put this breach of a covenant in proper perspective. One breach of the covenant in one part of the Church does not destroy the covenant for the whole Church. The verdict of the church trial in Washington does not change the position of The United Methodist Church regarding homosexuality. Nor does one breach of the covenant amount to schism in the Church. Because the position of the Church remains the same, and the decisions of sessions of General Conferences for decades indicate that a strong majority of United Methodists continue to support the position of the Church, schism ought not be a serious danger at this moment in history. Nevertheless, this breach of the covenant is a grave new development. It does create anxiety among United Methodists that in the future there could be a break down of the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church which might result in a schism of the visible and physical unity of the Church.

The breach in the covenant among United Methodists by members of the Pacific-Northwest Conference will cause many to think about the prospect of schism in the future. While the thought of schism makes most of us shudder, it will come into our consideration since a breach of a covenant among Christians could be the first step toward a schism unless this breach is repaired. [emphasis added]

There are two main sins against the church of God, heresy and schism. Heresy is choosing one’s own theological opinion over the doctrine of the church when one’s theology is contrary to the teaching of the church. Schism is separating from the church and destroying the church’s visible and physical unity. Schism is a temptation for both sides in the controversy about homosexuality. Those who would persist in violating the covenant of the United Methodist Church should consider their responsibility for provoking movements toward schism. Those who might react to provocation by openly advocating schism in the name of the integrity of the teaching of the Church should consider how their schismatic actions would violate the unity God wills for the Church.

I re-affirm my own agreement with the position of The United Methodist Church about the practice of homosexuality. I continue to be willing to listen to others who disagree with the position of the Church and the transcultural tradition of the Christian community. I pledge my commitment to fulfill my responsibilities in the episcopal office to adhere to The Book of Discipline. I promise my willingness to support efforts to repair the serious breach of our covenant. I pray for the illumination and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church as we deal with our disagreements and seek to obtain genuine unity in common mission in the name of Jesus Christ, the Sovereign and Savior of the world.

Timothy W. Whitaker Resident Bishop, Florida Area

 
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