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  Pro-Homosexual and Conservative UM Groups Take Sides on Bishop's Statement

Bishops' statement draws guarded praise, criticism

By United Methodist News Service

May 11, 1998

Conservative groups that have been most vocal about issues related to homosexuality in the church have expressed guarded praise for a pastoral statement issued by United Methodist bishops during their regular semi-annual session in Lincoln, Neb. April 25-May 1.

Less enthusiasm has come from liberal groups such as Affirmation, a caucus of gay and lesbian United Methodists, and the Methodist Federation for Social Action.

In a two-page statement adopted unanimously by the bishops April 30, they pledged to uphold the church's Book of Discipline, "including the statements on homosexuality and all specified issues contained in the Social Principles, including the prohibition of ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions by our ministers and in our churches." At the same time, the bishops affirmed their "pastoral responsibility to all peoples, including those who feel excluded from the church."

Homosexuality issues, particularly same-sex union ceremonies, came to the forefront following a March 11-13 clergy trial. The Rev. Jimmy Creech of Omaha, Neb., was acquitted of violating the order and discipline of the church after performing a ceremony for two women.  The trial decision hinged on the legal or enforceable status of  a prohibition in the Social Principles against United Methodist clergy performing same-sex ceremonies or such services being held in United Methodist churches.  The question, which may be decided by the church's Judicial Council meeting in August, is whether the Social  Principles in the Book of Discipline  are advisory or law.

During their meeting in Lincoln, the bishops did not call a special a special session of the church's top legislative body to deal with the issue, as some conservative groups had requested.  Such a session would not be wise at this time, the bishops said,  since the Judicial Council has announced it would deal with the issues at a special meeting in August.

Executive committee members of Good News, the church's oldest evangelical caucus, said in a May 1 statement they were pleased with the bishops' public commitment to uphold the Book of Discipline, including the Social Principles.  They applauded the call for a renewed commitment to doctrinal foundations and welcomed the bishops' assurance of their "individual and corporate commitment to proclaim, defend, and live the doctrines, order, and mission of the church."

They expressed regret that the bishops did not call a special session of the General Conference and urged them to do so immediately if the Judicial Council "does not decisively uphold the church's ban on same-sex unions" at its August meeting.  "The church cannot wait until the 2000 General Conference for resolution of this matter," the Good News leaders said.

Concern was expressed that the bishops made no reference to clergy who have declared their intent to perform same-sex  covenants.  "The growing number of pastors who are saying publicly that they will not be bound by General Conference action threatens the unity of our connection," they said.

Good News leaders questioned how the council's action could have been unanimous when 15 bishops announced at the 1996 General Conference in Denver that they did not agree with the Book of  Discipline's  position on homosexuality.

Officers of the Confessing Movement  expressed similar opinions in a one-page statement released May 4. The movement began at a national meeting in Atlanta in April 1994.  "We are grateful that the Council of Bishops has recognized the pain inflicted upon the membership of the United Methodist Church as caused by the performing of a same-sex  union . . . and the verdict which failed to find the pastor guilty for violation of the order and discipline of the church," they said.

They also expressed concern about pastors who have expressed their willingness to perform same-sex unions.  "If we are to remain a credible connection, this must be met decisively," they said.  If the Judicial Council does not confirm and clarify the intent of the General Conference, the Confessing Movement leaders said, "We are fearful that there will be a radical hemorrhage of members leaving the denomination, and a significant loss in financial support for the general structures of our church."

Executive director of Good News is the Rev. James. V. Heidinger II. Chairman of the Good News board  is the Rev. William A. Hines of Findley, Ohio.  Executive director of the Confessing Movement is Patricia  L. Miller of  Indianapolis. President is the Rev. John Ed Mathison, Montgomery, Ala.

Liberal groups supporting Creech have included Affirmation, a caucus within the denomination that advocates for the concerns of lesbian, gay, bisexual and "transgendered" persons, and CORNET, the Covenant Relationships Network  CORNET seeks to "continue the tradition of hosting worship services that celebrate and witness to same-gender covenant relationships . . . and resists actions that try to withdraw this means of grace from same-gender persons."

In a May 6 release, Morris Floyd, a spokesperson for Affirmation and CORNET, said the bishops' statement "is another illustration of the problem of losing sight of Biblical commandments for justice and love."

"Despite its appropriate pastoral tone, the statement satisfied very few," Floyd continued. "It simply reiterated the administrative status quo."

The Rev. Jeanne Knepper, Portland, Ore., another spokesperson for Affirmation, said the bishops, in an attempt to find some middle ground, failed to address significant questions: "Does the church exist to serve its members and make them comfortable or to reach out to people who might be unlike people already in the church? Is it to support convention or to confront injustice?"

If the bishops have pledged to support the Book of Discipline, Knepper said they should support all of it, including statements that favor inclusion. "The language of the Discipline over and over is that the church is there for all people," she said. "Only in a few specific cases does it put conditions on the way the church is there for homosexuals."

Knepper said she finds it ironic that some people who see themselves as guardians of the order and discipline of the church are withholding shared askings  for churchwide mission and ministry. 

Instead of attempting to calm a "stormy ocean," she said the bishops should be "lighting a distant light, a lighthouse, to steer by. They should not be talking about maintaining discipline, order and unity but about the necessity of mission, outreach and grace. I think the distant light we ought to be steering by is the message of inclusion built into the United Methodist Constitution.  That's the light of gospel, grace and the love of Christ. That could lead us through stormy times."

The Methodist Federation for Social Action, with offices in Staten Island, N.Y., has supported Creech and worked for inclusion of gay and lesbians in the church. George D. McClain,  executive director, said reiteration of the church's position by the Council of Bishops "in no way diminishes the reality that the Creech verdict is a sign of the direction in which God is leading us."

He expressed appreciation that the bishops "did not panic" and call for a special General Conference session.

"We are pleased that they acknowledged those excluded from the church - obviously, lesbians and gay men," he said. "Aware that the bishops themselves are deeply divided around issues of sexual identity, biblical interpretation and doctrinal emphases, we celebrate the bishops' commitment to prayerful study and dialogue about such issues, thus enabling them to model for the church how we can be a mutually supportive and forgiving family despite our differences." Another statement was released  on behalf of "In All Things Charity," a document signed by  more than 1,300 clergy who declared their commitment to greater inclusiveness for gay and lesbian people, including support for "covenantal commitments between same-gendered couples." 

The Rev. Gregory Dell of Chicago, spokesperson for the group, said the bishops' statement pre-empts the Judicial Council's ruling, and changes "the historic nature of our church from a faith-motivated community to a doctrinal denomination. For that reason, it puts increased numbers of faith-motivated clergy at risk of ecclesiastical trial on all kinds of issues. It also leaves the church further divided and more adamant in its exclusion of many of its members."

He said In All Things Charity supporters are mounting a campaign to get the document endorsed by a large number of laity across the church.

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