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Council of Bishops Consider Homosexuality and Universal Salvation

UM Bishops Debate Church's Authority and Mission

Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy
December 21, 1998

At its Fall 1998 meeting, the United Methodist Council of Bishops discussed the meaning of authority, unity and mission within the church. The bishops listened to a formal presentation on each of these three topics and then discussed them in small groups, called "quilting circles" by Bishop Janice Huie of Arkansas.

Despite the cordial discussions, the bishops failed to develop a firm consensus on issues such as homosexuality and the church's ultimate authority. But they all agreed on the importance of continued unity amidst the disagreements.

Perhaps most controversial among the three papers was the address by Bishop Roy Sano of Los Angeles on unity, which focused on homosexuality. Sano urged an approach to same gender sex that is similar to St. Paul's open views regarding circumcision. Just as the early church decided not all Christians must be circumcised, so perhaps today's church should not require homosexuals to become heterosexual.

In explaining Scriptural passages that seem to condemn homosexual practice, Sano suggested that the actual texts condemn inhospitality, prostitution, and pederasty. He also questioned why the condemnation by Leviticus of homosexual acts is considered binding, while other more obscure prohibitions against animal husbandry and plant cross fertilization are ignored.

The proper approach to homosexuality, offered Sano, might not be "either/or" but "both/and," accepting both practicing homosexuals and former homosexuals who are attempting to change their sexual practice. He suggested the church could foster unity by affirming both approaches, while promoting "justice" for homosexual persons. He approvingly cited a guidebook from the American Civil Liberties Union, which addresses the civil rights of homosexuals within the context of "gay and lesbian families," "experiences in the Armed Forces," public accommodations and other areas.

Retired bishops William Grove and Jimmy Matthews commended Sano for opening the discussion about homosexuality. But retired Bishop Thomas Stockton responded that bishops who "theologically and scripturally take another approach should also be allowed to present their position before the body."

In a subsequent sermon, Bishop Janice Huie of Arkansas seemed to side with Bishop Sano. She recalled her sadness when a minister asked if he could perform a union ceremony for two lesbians. "I dropped the shepherd's staff and had to pick up the Discipline," said Huie. "I had to fulfill my legal obligations." When the minister told her that the "restriction" prevented his being a shepherd to his flock, Hueie said she was "greatly disturbed" but could not follow any other course. Bishop Ray Chamberlain of Knoxville, in his sermon, stressed that despite disagreement among them about homosexuality, the church's law must be upheld.

Rebecca Chopp, a theologian at United Methodist Candler seminary in Atlanta, delivered a paper to the bishops about "authority" in the church. She urged "using scripture and tradition in the living reality of the church in the power of the Spirit to show new possibilities, new way, new forms of love of God and neighbor."

Chopp admitted the "strict religion," otherwise known as "fundamentalism," is a worldwide phenomenon among persons who are confused and "overwhelmed by choices" available in the modern world. Fundamentalism's "abdication of freedom and responsibility" is a problem, she warned. To the bishops she advocated instead an "authority of possibilities."

Professing that she was only providing the terminology for discussion about authority without necessarily recommending a particular path, Chopp declined to fully describe her own theological perspective. But her definition of authority seemed to be fluid. "Part of the Christian story is about incarnation continuing in our world, the Spirit living in new shapes and forms, theological capacities changing, and new levels of meaning arising in our practices."

"Your job," Chopp told the bishops, " is find the winds or even the whispers of the Spirit that we know are there." She also noted that the Scripture is "polyphonic" and "used by the Spirit in community in multiple ways."

Chopp asked the bishops: "Do we merely assent to what already is held to be true or are we open to growing along the way and allowing for that unique journey traveled by others, helping them to grow in the experience of the love of God and neighbor?" She spoke of "God-Incarnation-Spirit-Church as living and breathing and growing. It is...about finding the spaces where Spirit is alive and leading us along new paths."

David Lowes Watson, a former Wesley Seminary professor, spoke to the bishops about the church's "mission." He now directs pastor formation for the Nashville Conference. Watson described humans as "profoundly alienated" from their Creator, from one another and from 'the planet." The reason for this alienation is "shrouded in mystery," Watson offered, as the Scriptures "address it only in the form of myth and parable, in which the writers do not offer rational explanations."

He believes that the democratic nature of America's churches have made them more susceptible to "accommodation to modernity." Theological disputes over "nonessentials," an "embrace of consumerist thought" and "cultural idolatries" are common to American Christianity, where "discipleship is at a very low ebb."

Watson called the church to "become Christocentric in every dimension of our ecclesial life and work." The church must focus on Christ's resurrection and answer the question: "What happens when I die?" He rejects the notion that salvation is limited to persons who place their faith in Christ.

Indeed, this traditional notion of the church is "scandalous" and "embedded in a neo-gnostic framework." It makes Jesus a "personalized agent under salvific contract to consumers who have cut themselves the deal of a lifetime, including the mendacious offer of total amnesty in eternity." Watson provided several quotes from John Wesley that he implied would indicate agreement with universal salvation.

After each of the three presentations, the bishops were invited to submit brief written comments that were later compiled and distributed without specific attribution. Two comments from bishops called Sano's address on unity a "one-sided apology" that only fosters "deeper division." But most comments were more positive, calling his speech a "strong and reflective position."

The written comments from bishops about Watson's paper offered no criticism but did not offer praise either. More interesting were the responses from bishops on the topic of authority. Over one hundred comments were provided from the bishops on their conception of authority for the church. Several cited the Scriptures. Others gave the formulation of Scripture, reason, tradition and experience.

The episcopacy, the Discipline, the General Conference and the hymnal were also listed as founts of authority, seemingly on par with the Bible. Others offered still more vague definitions of authority as based on "hope," "love," "community" and the intersection of "the infinite with the finite."

In other statements, the bishops condemned the "sin of racism," expressed concern about human rights abuses in Indonesia, and called for a worldwide cancellation of debt owed by Third World governments to international lending agencies. About 120 active and retired bishops were present for the meeting.

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