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UM Press Presents Charged Bishop's Defense While Decrying Public Nature Of Complaint

[except from UM Reporter]

Campgrounds lawyer files complaints

(July 28) The attorney who represented the Des Plaines Campground while it was under investigation by the Northern Illinois Conference Board of Church and Society for alleged discrimination against a gay couple has filed four letters of complaint charging Bishop C. Joseph Sprague with disobedience to United Methodist Church law and calling for the bishop's removal from office.

John E. Juergensmeyer, attorney for the Des Plaines Campground and member of Wesley UMC in Elgin, sent the letters on June 30 to Bishop John Hopkins, Minnesota, who was then president of the North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops.

Because Sprague is the newly elected president of the College of Bishops, effective with the North Central Jurisdictional Conference July 12-15, Hopkins turned the complaint letters over to Bishop Michael Coyner, Dakotas, who serves as secretary of the College.

Coyner said he will "follow the steps in 413 of the Discipline which aim at reconciliation." Because he is going on a four-week renewal leave, Coyner said the process won't begin until the end of summer.

Coyner expressed concern that the complaints have been made public.

Juergensmeyer, retired NIC clergy the Rev. Carson Lauffer and Michael Gonzalez, member of First UMC in Glen Ellyn, sent press releases and copies of the complaint letters to religious and secular news media, distributed them by fax and e-mail and posted them on the Web.

"I have a concern that we need to have confidentiality from all parties involved," Coyner said, "in order to be able to process this as required by the Discipline."

Sprague said he will not comment on the complaints "because this is a confidential process, and regardless of how the supposed complainant chooses to handle it, I will abide by the dictated procedures."

First complaint

Juergensmeyer's first letter of complaint alleges that Sprague disobeyed the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church by "interfering with and disrupting the proceedings of the recent General Conference in Cleveland" resulting in Sprague's arrest by Cleveland police.

Juergensmeyer charges Sprague with "intentionally disrupting a plenary session of General Conference, expressly ignoring and refusing to comply with the request of the presiding bishop, and causing such a disturbance that the presiding bishop was compelled on two separate occasions to order Bishop Sprague arrested by the civil authorities so that the business of the Conference could proceed."

Eyewitnesses of the protest say that Sprague was sitting in his assigned seat on the stage with other members of the Council of Bishops when demonstrators protesting the denomination's policies against full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church ascended the stairs to the stage and began singing. When Cleveland police began escorting demonstrators off the stage, Bishop Sprague and Bishop Susan Morrison (Troy) left their seats on the podium and accompanied the protesters.

"Bishop Sprague was not ordered arrested," said the Rev. Emery Percell, who was on the stage having just completed a presentation. "Bishop Sprague and Bishop Morrison were not part of the demonstration. They decided that their witness needed to be made with the people who were going to be arrested, and they stepped out to go with them."

During last June's annual conference session, Sprague told those attending a discussion with him that he accompanied the protesters to jail "as a pastoral act."

Second complaint

Juergensmeyer's second allegation is that Sprague disseminated "doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of the Church." Juergensmeyer's letter says the bishop distributed a book written by Marcus Borg to NIC pastors and required them "to attend District discussion sessions of the Borg theology." Juergensmeyer said Borg "denies the divinity of Jesus Christ, denies the resurrection, heaven, the miracles of Christ and numerous other doctrines central to the United Methodist Church."

A similar complaint, filed by Lauffer in December 1998 was dismissed by Bishop Jonathan Keaton who was then serving as president of the College of Bishops. At that time, Lauffer, who had publicized the complaint on Internet Web sites and through Newscope, a national weekly newsletter published by United Methodist Publishing House, acknowledged that Bishop Keaton warned Lauffer that he could be brought up on charges for "behavior which undermines the ministry of another pastor," one of nine chargeable offenses listed in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. Sprague refused at that time to file a complaint against Lauffer.

Third complaint

Juergensmeyer's third complaint is that Bishop Sprague violated church law by "using church funds and resources of his office for the promotion of homosexuality, contrary to the [Book of] Discipline." Juergensmeyer claims that Sprague approved the use of — or did not oppose the use of — church money to hire the Rev. Gregory Dell to work with "In All Things Charity," an advocacy group for gays and lesbians in the life of the church. During that period, Dell was suspended from ministry for performing a same-sex union service. He returned to the pastorate on July 1.

According to Dell, In All Things Charity, a ministry of Broadway UMC, Chicago, was funded by the local church and private donations. "There were no Conference or General Church funds used for In All Things Charity," Dell said. "The funds for my compensation were raised from volunteer donations from across the country." Athena Staveris, NIC Director of Accounting, confirmed that no money from the NIC was given to In All Things Charity.

Juergensmeyer also claims that Sprague "used church funds to pay for attorneys to defend homosexuality in litigation against Methodist religious institutions and has testified in favor of homosexuality at these legal proceedings."

Juergensmeyer's charge apparently refers to ongoing litigation involving the Historic Methodist Campground in Des Plaines. Because the gay couple who filed charges of discrimination against the campground also named the Northern Illinois Conference as defendant in the suit, the NIC was forced to retain the services of an attorney to defend itself in court.

Fourth complaint

Juergensmeyer's last complaint is that Bishop Sprague failed to perform the work of the ministry because of "numerous administrative failings and inadequacies of the Northern Illinois Conference office and conduct of the Northern Illinois Annual Conferences for 1999-2000." Juergensmeyer cites the "grossly delayed" publication of the 1999 Conference Journal, lack of timely presentation of budgetary matters, and limits on legislative sessions and floor discussions at annual conference.

"This charge against the bishop is inappropriate," said the Rev. Dan Swinson, Conference secretary. "There isn't a requirement for when the Journal is to be published. How can something be grossly late when there is no deadline for its publication? The Discipline defines what is to be in the Journal, and I've diligently tried to comply with that. The standing rules dictate how it is to be distributed. But there is no rule either in the standing rules or the Discipline as to when it should be published."

"To rag on the bishop for failing to do something that there is no rule that says he has to do seems to me to be out of line or inappropriate," Swinson said.

Swinson also noted that the printing company that was producing the Conference Journal went out of business in the middle of the job. "How could the bishop be held responsible for that?" he asked.

"Whatever incompetency in administrative ability that I have as Conference Secretary that would keep me from adequately responding to what for me was, frankly, a situation I've never faced before — trying to get a journal printed by a company that was going out of business — shouldn't be laid at Bishop Sprague's door," Swinson said.

Considering the other complaints, Swinson said: "It seems to me that it would hardly be fair to put Bishop Sprague out front and blame him for things that all of us in the Annual Conference who come and debate and vote and decide are at least in part responsible for."

Bishop Sprague said the letters of complaint seem to be "part of an organized effort of a small, very vocal minority" that includes people with the Confessing Movement, Institute for Religion and Democracy and similar conservative groups that have drawn support from "a few people" in the Northern Illinois Conference.

"[These] people can't fathom why a person with my commitments would be elected to the episcopacy," Sprague said, pointing out that he made those commitments clear when he stood for election as bishop.

Sprague has received overwhelming votes of support from NIC clergy meeting in executive session and from NIC's June Annual Conference session in DeKalb, which approved a resolution asking for his assignment to the NIC for a second four-year term.

The Book of Discipline states that when a complaint is filed against a bishop, the president of the jurisdictional college of bishops shall make a supervisory response. If the complaint is against the president of the college, the secretary makes the response. The response is "directed toward a just resolution and/or reconciliation among all parties." This may include consultation with the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy or voluntary mediation.

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