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Bishop Sprague says, Pastors Should Take Freedom to Preach ANY Message they Believe, but Taking Liberty with Sprague's Apportionment Money is a Capital Offense

June 27, 2003

Bishop C. Joseph Sprague
Northern Illinois Annual Conference
United Methodist Church
77 W. Washington St., Suite 1820
Chicago  IL  60602

Dear Bishop Sprague:

I write at the direction of the members of the Northern Illinois Conference Evangelical Association to request an opportunity for as many as possible of our members to meet with you to discuss your plan for implementing across our annual conference the provisions of Document 700-23, passed as amended in the plenary session of the annual conference on the afternoon of Saturday, June 7, 2003.

It will be important for us to obtain your responses to at least these questions:

  • Do you expect all pastors in our conference to proclaim from the pulpits of our churches that homosexual orientation (no less or more than heterosexual orientation) can be compatible with Christian teaching, exposing parishioners to the fullness of the Scriptural witness on related matters in our Bible studies?
  • Do you expect to encourage or ask our pastors to encourage Christian educators, primarily lay people, to "teach it in our Sunday school classes and tell it to our children"?
  • Do you intend, during the final year of your Episcopacy in this conference, to welcome all persons into the clergy covenant, regardless of their sexual orientation?
  • What consequences await a pastor who refuses to implement the provisions of document 700-23?
  • What consequences await a pastor who implements the provisions of document 700-23?

While we surely understand the demands on your time and want to be as flexible as possible in scheduling, we are receiving numerous requests for information about this document and what it means to our churches and want to be able to respond appropriately and in a timely way. I have provided contact information below and look forward to speaking with you.

Very truly yours,

James B. Blue,  chairman

[On Bishop's letterhead - The United Methodist Church - Chicago Area - Northern Illinois Conference]

July 10, 2003


Mr. James B. Blue, Chairman

NIC Evangelical Association of United Methodists (NICEA) P.O. Box 9074 Naperville, IL  60567-9074

Dear Chairman Blue:

  Grace to you and peace in Jesus’ name.

I write in response to your letter of inquiry dated June 27, 2003.  I shall seek to respond to your queries in the order in which you presented them.

  • I am a firm adherent of the historic freedom of the United Methodist pulpit.  I would expect no pastor to preach or teach that which is contrary to his/her beliefs.  Regarding Document 700-23, a dissenting pastor might say, “The Northern Illinois Conference resolved last Spring that “. . .”, but The Book of Discipline, the only voice that speaks for United Methodism, says “. . .”, and/but I say “. . .”
  • Across twenty-seven years of pastoral ministry and during seven years of executive ecumenical leadership, I never received an episcopal directive regarding what subject matter staff or I should teach.  I have not issued such a directive in seven years as a bishop, despite some deeply held biblical, theological, and justice convictions.  I surely do not intend to reverse the trend of a lifetime in the final year of my active ministry.  In fact, I was quite clear in the State of the Church address regarding my aspirations and agenda for 2003-2004.
  • This Bishop ordains or commissions those candidates the Board of Ordained Ministry (BOOM) certifies as viable.  While I have had personal questions about the competency and/or commitment of a select few of the candidates placed before me, I have acknowledged the understandable separation of powers in our polity and either ordained or commissioned all those presented by BOOM.  My assumption was and is that, if any candidates were homosexual in orientation, BOOM had determined that he or she met the strictures of The Book of Discipline, regarding “practice” and, therefore, was a viable candidate.  I plan no change in 2004.  I trust the work of BOOM, even if I am sometimes vexed by a few particular decisions the group makes.
  • A resolution is that which the adopting body resolves or intends to pursue.  It is not binding, per se.  It is an expression of intent by the voting body.  In fact, until recently, the Social Principles were thusly understood.  I recall many debates with a past-President of Good News on the floor of West Ohio regarding both capital punishment and issues of peace.  He steadfastly, and rightly, maintained that a statement of intent or principle is not a mandate even if it is found in the Social Principles.  Thus, he advocated for capital punishment and war making despite the then language of the Social Principles to the contrary.  That working assumption prompted Good News and compatriots to move additional prohibitive language regarding activities of homosexuals into the body of The Book of Discipline in 1996 and 2000.  And, such an understanding, I suppose, permits many NICEA-like United Methodists to advocate for capital punishment and the recent US led wars despite the language of the Social Principles to the contrary.  Thus, while  “. . . we do not condone the practice. . .” is resolution-like, the addition of preclusive language in the body of The Discipline is what gives this position its actual “teeth”.  I am certain that NICEA is well aware of this.
  • I say all of this to say that a resolution is not a mandate.  Interestingly, however, apportionment giving is a mandate.  I would rejoice if more pastors took seriously this disciplinary stricture.  However, it seems that both conservatives and progressives can look the other way on this mandate, while fussing unduly about resolutions not to their particular liking.  It always comes down to whose ox is being gored.
  • The prohibitions of The Discipline have been and will be honored.  For example, union services for homosexual couples cannot be performed by United Methodist clergy.  Neither can United Methodist sanctuaries be used for such services.  I have been and I remain clear that The Discipline’s mandates are primary.  They are to be maintained, even if this Conference and Bishop disagree with them on matters relating to homosexuality.  We can express disagreement, as Document 700-23 encourages, but  our practice must not violate The Discipline.

Document 700-23 first came to my attention in the pre-conference mailing.  The same mailing you and the other NICEA members received.  I viewed the resolution in question primarily as an attempt to influence the General Conference, which is proper action for an annual conference to take.  But, Document 700-23 does not and cannot take precedence over The Discipline.  I expect all clergy to honor The Discipline, while I grant to all the freedom to express themselves from pulpit or lectern as the Holy Spirit leads, conscience dictates, and the Conference has spoken in Document 700-23.
  I shall be on Renewal Leave during the months of August and September.  Needless to say, my July calender is full.  If these responses to your queries require further discussion, I will gladly meet with you and your colleagues upon my return in the Fall.  An appointment can be scheduled through Ms. Phyllis Griffin, my Administrative Assistant.

Blessings for a joyful Summer.

Your brother in Christ,  

Bishop C. Joseph Sprague



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