benchmark for action
by the United Methodist Church
Sept. 25, 1997
by Bob Lear*
Propelled into prominence by a "simple and
meaningful" ceremony in Omaha, Neb., a 20-word sentence
adopted in l996 by the United Methodist Church's top legislative
assembly arguably is on its way to benchmark status in the
denomination's continuing debate on human sexuality.
Approved by a General Conference vote of 553 to 321, the
sentence declares: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual
unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be
conducted in our churches."
The words seem clear enough. Their inclusion in the
denomination's Social Principles instead of in the part of the Book
of Discipline that is accepted as binding church law raises
sharply questions of their effectiveness.
First adopted by Methodist bodies early in this century, the
"Social Principles" today are introduced as "a
prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General
Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world
from a sound biblical and theological foundation.... " and
are " ... intended to be instructive and persuasive in the
best of the prophetic spirit."
The status of the principles so far as binding church law is
concerned never has been before the Judicial Council, the
denomination's high court.
The 20 words were brought sharply into focus Sept. 14 when the
Rev. Jimmy Creech, pastor of the 1,900-member First United
Methodist Church of Omaha, Neb., conducted what he termed "a
very simple and very meaningful" covenanting ceremony for
two lesbian members of the congregation. He said the occasion was
"a very intimate and worshipful experience."
Creech earlier had been told in a written statement by Bishop
Joel N. Martinez of Nebraska that "to proceed with the
ceremony would place him in noncompliance" with church law,
and the pastor could "anticipate a written complaint against
him. ... " for "misconduct or unsatisfactory
performance of ministerial duties."
Several of the 10 specific charges for which a clergy person
can be cited deal with sexual issues ("harassment,
misconduct or abuse," for example), but none of the 10 deals
directly with same-sex covenanting ceremonies.
There is a chargeable offense for "disobedience to the
Order and Discipline" of the church, and another for
"dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established
standards of doctrine of the church." The Social Principles
state the church considers the practice of homosexuality
"incompatible with Christian teaching."
Although the precise status of the Social Principles as
binding law has not been determined, there are several Judicial
Council decisions that might be seen as bearing on the issue.
During debate on the 20 words in l996 the court was asked to
rule whether the principles was an appropriate location for the
statement. The court responded that placement was a legislative
decision outside the court's jurisdiction.
In l993 the Judicial Council ruled that an annual conference
"has no authority to alter the official rites and
rituals" of the church. (The l996 General Conference refused
by a vote of 628 to 190 to authorize same sex commitment
The l993 court decision also held that "it is the
responsibility of pastors in charge to perform their duties in
compliance with the Discipline and be obedient to the
order and discipline of the Church."
There is a substantial body of decisions relating to the issue
of homosexuality. Where individuals have been involved in these
cases the court has gone to considerable length to see that due
process of law is observed and the individual's rights protected.
A specific part of church law prohibits the ordination or
appointment of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" as
When the 20-word statement on covenanting ceremonies was
introduced in l996, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, Washington, said
"I doubt there's anybody in this room who fully agrees with
everything in all of the Social Principles." Wogaman said
adding the 20 words to the principles was an attempted juridical
action relating to "teaching tools."
The Rev. Jackson Brewer, a Kentucky Conference district
superintendent, called the proposed wording "an
enhancement" of the Social Principles, and an "issue of
great concern to lay people in our churches." The 20-word
statement originated with Grace United Methodist Church in
Newport, Ky., a part of Brewer's district.
More recently a veteran pastor and church official observed
wryly to a reporter "there are numerous inconsistencies in
practice where the Social Principles are concerned" on the
part of bishops, clergy and laity alike.
Reports on the ceremony in Omaha have sparked substantial
discussion on various electronic web pages. The Rev. J. Richard
Peck of the United Methodist Publishing House staff said it has
been the liveliest topic so far on the fledgling Newscope web
forum with a majority of the comments siding with the view that
the Social Principles are not binding church law.
On another web, Keith Ladd, Lyndell, Pa., lay leader of the
Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, said he believes the 20 words
represent the will of the General Conference to which he was a
delegate. "It is my strong recollection General Conference
was trying to express a position," Ladd told a reporter.
"Now we will find out if (the conference) acted
Beyond the discussion, some groups are taking action. Earlier
this year, a Covenant Relationship Network (CORNET) to support
the right of United Methodist clergy to celebrate same sex
covenant relationships was formed by Affirmation: United
Methodists for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns.
Clergy are invited to sign a statement protesting the l996
addition to the Social Principles.
The Rev. Jeanne Knepper, Portland, Ore., a co-spokesperson for
Affirmation, said in late September an up-to-date tally of
signers was not immediately available.
In contrast to Affirmation's action, Eastern Pennsylvania's Ladd
voiced the opinion that "the concern of the whole society
will not be resolved by confrontation and argument, but,
hopefully, with God's overpowering love helping us solve
# # #
* Lear is retired director of the Washington office of United
Methodist News Service now living in Wernersville, Pa.
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United Methodist Church, please call InfoServ at 1.800.251.8140.
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