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United Methodist Council of Bishops facing diversity issues at Nebraska meeting

April 1, 1998  by United Methodist News Service

Theological diversity -– particularly the fallout from a recent clergy trial -– will be on the agenda for United Methodist bishops when they meet April 25-May 1 in Lincoln, Neb.

Facing the international Council of Bishops will be proposals to:

  • call a special session of the General Conference, the top legislative body of the church that ordinarily meets every four years;
  • call a special session of the council to discuss diversity issues raised in an "In Search of Unity" document;
  • create an ongoing Commission on Theological Diversity.

Nebraska pastor Jimmy Creech was acquitted March 13 of charges that he violated the order and discipline of the denomination when he performed a same-sex ceremony at First United Methodist Church in Omaha. Eight of the 13 jurors voted against Creech, but nine votes are necessary for conviction in a church trial.

The case hinged on the fact that the Social Principles, which include a prohibition against same-sex unions, is advisory, not church law.

Groups interested in creating legally enforceable prohibitions against same-sex ceremonies quickly called on the Council of Bishops to request a special session of the General Conference, the only group that makes policy for the denomination.

More recently, the executive committee of the churchwide Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Conference requested that the bishops have a special meeting to discuss issues raised in an "In Search of Unity" document. The paper was created by participants in a two-part dialogue on theological diversity sponsored by the Christian Unity Commission.

Participants in the recent dialogues in Nashville and Dallas also asked the bishops to:

  • create a 24-member Committee on Theological Dialogue;
  • conduct its own dialogues "in order to model for the church our journey toward unity," and
  • prepare a teaching paper on the authority of Scripture and divine revelation.

More than 100 episcopal leaders from around the world will attend the semi-annual Council of Bishops meeting at the Cornhusker Hotel in downtown Lincoln.

Preliminary committee meetings will begin on April 25, but the first plenary session involving all the bishops will begin with worship at 9:15 a.m. April 28. The meeting will adjourn at noon on May 1.

The council includes 50 active bishops in the United States and 17 from Africa, Europe and the Philippines. About 60 retired bishops participate but without voting.

Of the 50 active U.S. bishops, 10 are African American, nine are women, two are Hispanic Americans, one is Japanese American and one is Korean American.

Bishop Emerito P. Nacpil of the Philippines will preside over the sessions. At the close of the meeting, Bishop George W. Bashore of the Pittsburgh Area will be installed for a one-year term as president. Serving a four-year term as secretary of the council is Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader of the Wisconsin Area.

United Methodists are the second largest Protestant group in the United States, with 8.5 million members. The church also has more than a million members in Europe, Africa and the Philippines.

During their business sessions in Lincoln, the bishops will continue work on a churchwide initiative on children and poverty, hear a presentation on establishing new faith communities, and select one of their number to deliver the episcopal address at the beginning of the 2000 General Conference.

Among issues related to the initiative on children and poverty, the bishops will consider a proposal from the Commission on Pan Methodist Cooperation that United Methodists jointly promote Children's Sabbath in October in cooperation with the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches.

During their semi-annual meetings, the bishops often speak out on social issues. The topics are recommended by individual bishops early in the meetings and referred to a Committee on Resolutions for development. Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the Denver Area chairs the committee.

One social issue facing the council is whether to call for the closure of the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. A resolution calling for closure came before the bishops at an earlier meeting but was deferred until more information could be obtained. A group of United Methodists visited the school March 10.

The school, founded in 1946, has trained more than 57,000 officers, cadets, noncommissioned officers, police and government civilian personnel from 21 Latin American nations. Critics note that graduates have been involved in human rights abuses, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Attending his first council meeting since being elected a bishop in the Methodist Church in Puerto Rico will be Bishop Juan A. Vera-Mendez.

Special recognition will be given to Bishop Emilio de Carvalho of Angola and Bishop Onema Fama of the Republic of Congo. Each of the Africans has served 26 years as an active bishop, longer than any colleagues on the current council.

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