Good News 'Response to Bishops'"trumpet of episcopal leadership gives an uncertain sound"
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James V. Heidinger II - (606) 858-4661
Good News 'Response to Bishops'
Pastoral Letter to the Church
WILMORE, KY - The Pastoral Letter released November 5 by the United Methodist Council of Bishops has much that Good News affirms. We applaud the bishops for seeking unity in the church, for seeking renewed focus on the primary mission of the church, for reminding us the church should be hospitable to all persons, and for issuing a "call to prayer, fasting, and Christian conversation" as we move into the new millennium.
We urge local churches to read and study the Pastoral Letter carefully, to discuss it in church school classes and small groups, and to give feedback to their bishops when appropriate. We agree with the bishops that the church's struggle with homosexuality is the issue creating the most anxiety in the church as we move toward General Conference. Increasingly, United Methodists are realizing that the Council of Bishops, itself, is divided on this issue, though often acting as if it is not. Bishops speak positively about their "diversity" in an attempt to put the best possible face on their deep and very real differences.
Dr. Phil Granger, senior minister of College Avenue UMC in Muncie, Indiana and chairman of the Good News board, had these reflections about the Pastoral Letter: "There is a pervasive tone to the episcopal letter that unity in the UMC is to be valued and sought above all else. The language of unity and diversity indicates that our episcopal leaders believe that all parties in the ongoing struggle about homosexuality should shelve their deeply held theological convictions in favor of a live-and-let-live approach to theological discourse. At the same time, the bishops affirm their support for making disciples for Christ and spreading Scriptural holiness. However, they must remember that this presupposes a deeply-held, common understanding of the Scriptural life to which Christ calls us and a firm commitment to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit that enables each of us to live that life."
In the spirit of conferencing and seeking to know and do the will of God---the same spirit expressed repeatedly in the Pastoral Letter---we would offer these reflections in response. We hope they might be part of the church's on-going discussion.
First, we applaud the very first statement of the Letter in which the bishops bring greetings "in the name of Jesus Christ who alone is our salvation, our hope, and our peace." We commend the bishops for this important claim concerning the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only savior and hope for the world.
Second, we appreciate the bishops' word that it is time to focus attention on the church's primary mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. The church has, indeed, been distracted, demoralized, and diminished by its protracted debate about homosexuality. Unfortunately, the church has also been distracted by the public statements of bishops who cannot affirm the present standards in The Book of Discipline, as well as efforts by UM boards and agencies to change the Discipline's standards. These distractions have taken a heavy toll on church membership and morale.
Third, we are pleased that the bishops have joined with many others who are calling for concerted prayer, fasting, and conversation as we prepare for General Conference in Cleveland next year. Our divided church needs this kind of earnest fasting and prayer.
Fourth, we applaud the bishops' plans to initiate periods of "Christian conferencing" with their respective delegations to General Conference and at future meetings of the Council. We trust, however, that "Christian conferencing" will not become a new "authority" for United Methodism by which some would seek new and different answers than what we have understood and affirmed from Scripture about God's plan for male and female, for marriage and sexuality.
Fifth, we share the bishops' concern that the controversy about homosexuality could lead to division within the church. We applaud the bishops in their desire to "serve Christ, to lead the church faithfully, and to be a witness to the unity of the Spirit." We are saddened, however, that the trumpet of episcopal leadership gives an uncertain sound on this issue. One sees little real leadership in the Pastoral Letter. Bishops are called to be more than moderators, referees, or discussion leaders. The present standards in The Book of Discipline concerning homosexuality have been forged carefully over the last seven quadrennia, the result of reasoned, prayerful study and Christian conferencing. Unfortunately, the Pastoral Letter does not affirm those standards with any sense of conviction or acknowledge them as consistent with the standards of most all other communions of Christ's church. It, rather, approaches the matter as if it were still unsettled and waiting for resolution in the next session of dialogue or conferencing. The Letter even encourages "all delegates to the 2000 General Conference to consider ways to move this issue beyond legislative solutions." This seems to be saying, "What cannot find approval by the General Conference legislative process must find approval by some other means." The Council of Bishops seems unwilling to accept the verdict of the church as a whole, which has decided clearly and convincingly on the issue but perhaps not in the way some bishops had wished. The Constitution of the United Methodist Church charges the Council of Bishops with the specific task of "carrying into effect the rules, regulations, and responsibilities prescribed and enjoined by the General Conference. . . " (Par. 45. Article III, The Book of Discipline). This charge is not optional. If there are bishops who are unable or unwilling, personally, to fulfill this responsibility, they should, as an act of personal integrity, step down from their episcopal office.
Sixth, we acknowledge the value of a call to "be quiet, to be united, to listen for God's guiding voice, and to learn from one another." We are concerned, however, that this could be misunderstood or become manipulative. When the church is facing a crisis over a major moral issue, it is not a time to be quiet. It is a time to speak lovingly, truthfully, and scripturally on behalf of the truth of the church's moral teaching. Unity should characterize the body of Christ. But the church must never seek unity at the cost of truth.
Seventh, we join the bishops in condemning hate-language and mean-spiritedness in the on-going debate about homosexuality. Angry, hateful language and name-calling (whether "queers and fags" or "homophobes and heterosexists") should have no part in the church's discussions and deliberations. The bishops make clear they "hear the anguish of many gay and lesbian persons, their parents and families." But do they also hear the profound pain and anguish of faithful United Methodists who feel alienated from their denomination and its leaders? Many are deeply disillusioned that their church can't or won't give clear leadership on this controversial matter.
Eighth, the Pastoral Letter is sensitive to the "anguish of many gay and lesbian persons, their parents and families," and speaks of fulfilling "the biblical mandate of hospitality" for all persons. However, the letter fails to affirm the integrity of those who thoughtfully and prayerfully affirm and seek to be faithful to the denomination's present standards as found in The Book of Discipline. Many believe those standards do, indeed, reflect a church attempting "to respond in Christian love." Rather, there is the disturbing implication in the Pastoral Letter that those who embrace the firm conviction that homosexual behavior is "incompatible with Christian teaching" are somehow not remaining "open" to the leading of the Holy Spirit on the matter.
Ninth, we are grateful that when the bishops encourage ministry to all persons, including those practicing homosexuality, they state that it must be done "within the bounds of our Book of Discipline." This is an important word for the church at a time when some view ministry as simply "affirming" persons in their homosexual behavior, even claiming it to be a gift from God. Ministry "within the bounds of our Book of Discipline," would be transforming and redemptive, affirming Christ's power to liberate persons from all sin. In reading the Letter, we looked in vain for a clear expression of Christ's ability to transform lives, including persons practicing homosexuality.
Finally, we affirm the bishops' desire to keep the church focused on making disciples. We are concerned, however, with the implication that the church's struggle over homosexuality is unrelated to disciple making. The church must face the critical question of whether one desiring to be a faithful disciple can at the same time actively engage in homosexual practice. It seems clear to us that the Scripture and the Church's long tradition say "no."
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