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'Social Principles'

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 ceremonies.)

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 pastors.

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 correctly."

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 it."

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* Lear is retired director of the Washington office of United Methodist News Service now living in Wernersville, Pa.

For general questions about The United Methodist Church, please call InfoServ at 1.800.251.8140.

Produced by United Methodist News Service, official news agency of the United Methodist Church, with offices in Nashville, Tenn., New York, and Washington.


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