April 30, 1998
Contact: Linda Green (615) 742-5470 Nashville, Tenn.
LINCOLN, Neb. — The bishops of The United Methodist Church have decided not to request a special session of the denomination's top lawmaking body to deal with the issue of same-sex unions.
In a much-awaited pastoral letter issued April 30, the Council of Bishops addressed the pain United Methodists across the country have expressed as a result of a recent church trial over a same-sex union in Nebraska. They also said they will proclaim and defend the doctrine, order and mission of the church.
The bishops have been working on the statement throughout their weeklong spring session, which ends May 1. More than 100 active and retired bishops from around the world are gathered here at the regularly scheduled meeting to connect with one another, grow in discipleship and give direction to the church.
On March 13, Nebraska pastor Jimmy Creech was acquitted by a jury of his peers of being disobedient to church law after he performed a same-sex union ceremony at First United Methodist Church in Omaha. A key question in the trial was whether the Social Principles, which include the proscription against same-sex unions, were guidelines or church law. The principles are contained in the denomination's governing Book of Discipline, but they are in a different section from the main body of law.
After the verdict, several groups asked the Council of Bishops to request a special session of the General Conference to make the church's policy against same-sex unions enforceable law. The General Conference is the highest legislative body of The United Methodist Church. It meets every four years, and its next gathering will be in the year 2000.
The bishops said that, in anticipation of a ruling by the denomination's supreme court, they deemed it unwise to call a special session at this point. Moreover, they said, "as we respond to the crisis in the world, especially among children and the impoverished. . .a special session might further distract us from our central mission.
In the letter, the bishops acknowledged the importance of the issues surrounding homosexuality and the church's ability to maintain discipline, order and unity. They also challenged the church "to remain focused on the mission of God and our unity in Christ and to set priorities accordingly." The bishops affirmed that the church's authority and unity are "inextricably bound to our sharing of Christ's ministry and presence among those whom Jesus called 'the least of these.'"
The pain United Methodists are feeling because of the homosexuality and same-sex issue is a "call" for renewed commitment to doctrinal foundations, the bishops said. "We solicit your prayers and support as together we seek to anchor the church more firmly in our biblical and theological foundations."
The bishops said they will confront matters of tension with patience and hope. They likewise called on the entire United Methodist Church to deal with matters concerning homosexuality and same-sex union "with faithfulness rooted in the love of Christ, as revealed in Holy Scripture."
Because of the divisiveness of the homosexuality issue, the bishops intend to develop a teaching resource that will identify "critical doctrinal and ecclesial foundations for addressing current and other issues."
A PASTORAL STATEMENT FROM THE COUNCIL OF BISHOPS
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! We greet you in the name of Jesus Christ who has broken down all dividing walls of hostility and made us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to the world.
Your bishops recognize and hear the pain within our church surrounding the recent church trial in the Nebraska Conference and the responses to the verdict. We acknowledge the concerns regarding the United Methodist Church's stand on issues, particularly homosexuality and homosexual unions, and the church’s ability to maintain discipline, order, and unity.
While recognizing the importance of these issues, we challenge the church to remain focused on the mission of God and our unity in Christ and to set its priorities accordingly. Issues within the church must not be allowed to distract us from the missional needs of the world and our call to make disciples of Jesus Christ. In keeping with the New Testament and our Wesleyan tradition, we affirm that the church's authority and unity are inextricably bound to our sharing in Christ's ministry with and presence among those whom Jesus called "the least of these" (Matthew 25:45).
Although the church trial in the Nebraska Conference heightened concern among many regarding our denomination's position on homosexuality and homosexual unions, the church’s position as defined in The Book of Discipline remains unchanged. The Book of Discipline states: "Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider the practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God's grace is available to all. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons." Further, the Discipline states, "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." Furthermore, The Book of Discipline states, "...self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."
We continue the commitment we made in our consecration as bishops "to guard the faith, to seek unity, and to exercise the discipline of the whole church; and to supervise and support the Church's life, work, and mission throughout the world." In covenant with one another, we are committed to uphold the General Conference’s action on the theological, ethical, and polity matters defined in The Book of Discipline, including the statements on homosexuality and all specified issues contained in the Social Principles including the prohibition of ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions by our ministers and in our churches. At the same time we also affirm our pastoral responsibility to all peoples including those who feel excluded from the church. We call upon the whole church to deal with these matters with faithfulness rooted in the love of Christ, as revealed in Holy Scripture. We believe with John Wesley, "It is the nature of love to unite us together..." and "To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians with whom we were before united is a grievous breach of the law of love."
Issues currently creating concern and pain within the church call for renewed commitment to our doctrinal foundations as contained in the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith and Wesley's Sermons and notes. We call all United Methodists to the fulfillment of the teaching office of the church and to ground the church's actions more deeply in the foundational doctrines and theological task as set forth in The Book of Discipline. Moreover, as an exercise of our teaching office, the Council of Bishops commits itself to engage in further prayerful study and dialogue and to develop a teaching paper as a means of identifying critical doctrinal and ecclesial foundations for addressing current and other issues. We solicit your prayers and support as together we seek to anchor the church more firmly in our biblical and theological foundations.
We acknowledge the desire to resolve current conflicts around issues of homosexuality. We have prayerfully considered the appeal to resolve legislatively the tensions through a called session of the General Conference. In anticipation of deliberations by the Judicial Council and the need for continued discernment and Christian conferencing on these matters, the calling of a special session does not seem wise at this time. Further, as we respond to the crises in the world, especially among children and the impoverished and those who desperately need the gospel, a special called session might further distract us from our central mission.
As a sign and instrument of Christ's coming reign over creation, the church lives with the tension between Christ's final victory and the present reality of sin. We do not, however, live with despair or impatience. With confidence, we as bishops continue our individual and corporate commitment to proclaim, defend, and live the doctrines, order, and mission of the church. The decisive victory has already been won in Jesus Christ. Therefore, we confront tension, conflict, and unresolved issues with patience, hope, and love. We know that in Jesus Christ "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross" (Colossians 1:20)
"Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 6:23).
i. "Social Principles", Para. 65G, 1996 Book of Discipline.
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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