May 1, 1998

United Methodist bishops see pastoral letter as healing tool


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by United Methodist News Service

Contact: Linda Green (615)742-5470 Nashville, Tenn.

LINCOLN, Neb.— United Methodist bishops hope that a pastoral letter they have developed during their semi-annual meeting will be a healing tool for a denomination struggling with issues related to homosexuality.

The bishops issued the letter April 30, affirming that they uphold the standards of the church's governing Book of Discipline and the Social Principles. They said they will not request a special session of the General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body, to deal with the issue of same-sex unions.

Such a session had been requested by several groups throughout the denomination. Those calls followed the March 11-13 clergy trial of the Rev. Jimmy Creech on charges that he broke church law by performing a same-sex union ceremony last September. Creech was acquitted by a narrow jury vote and reinstated as pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha.

The Council of Bishops worked on the statement throughout much of its weeklong semi-annual session, which ended May 1. The group includes 65 active bishops and almost as many retirees from the United States, Europe, Africa and the Philippines.

In the letter, the bishops acknowledged the concerns United Methodists have about the denomination's stand on issues of homosexuality and the church's ability to maintain discipline, order and unity.

Using a process of consensus and trying to discern God's will, the bishops developed a document that "we could embrace," said Bishop Emerito Nacpil of Manila, the Philippines, outgoing president of the council.

The bishops expect people to respect the letter and "heed the call to love one another in spite of differences . . . so that we may obtain the unity of the faith," Nacpil said during an April 30 press conference.

"We wanted to say something and assure the church that we hear the pain," said Bishop Kenneth Carder, of Nashville, Tenn., a member of the team that wrote the letter,

Because of the concerns surrounding the issue of homosexuality, the bishops called for a renewed commitment to United Methodist doctrine, set forth in the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith and church founder John Wesley's sermons and notes.

Asked if the call for renewal implied a lack of commitment by the bishops in the past, Nacpil replied, "In some terms you can say that." United Methodists are better known for the good they do than for some of the convictions they hold, he said. "That seems to be an impression of us."

The bishops hope the document will be "used by the spirit to heal" the division across the United Methodist Church, Nacpil said.

The letter is a "sign of a process of healing," said Bishop Sharon Rader, Sun Prairie, Wis. She was one of the 15 bishops at the 1996 General Conference who took issue with the denomination's proscriptions against homosexuality.

In their "discernment process," the bishops made a commitment to engage each other in discussions about theology and their understanding of the Book of Discipline, and to hear every voice, she said. "That to me is a strong and very important model to offer to the church for the ways in which we can engage with one another when we don't have the same opinion."

While the bishops affirmed the denomination's proscriptions against homosexuality and same-sex unions, the council said it is awaiting a ruling from the United Methodist Church's supreme court in August. The Judicial Council, which is responsible for interpreting church law, will hold a special session to address issues related to homosexual unions.

The judges face a key question: Is it a "chargeable offense" if a minister violates the denomination's prohibitions against performing same-sex union ceremonies and holding such services in United Methodist churches? Those prohibitions are included in the Social Principles, which are contained in the Book of Discipline. The Creech trial raised the issue of whether the principles are guidelines or law.

In their letter, the bishops said that calling for a special session of the General Conference would be premature until the Judicial Council rules.

Despite that, the bishops' letter drew support from two groups that had led the call for a special session, the Confessing Movement and Good News.

The bishops' statement is a step toward healing, said the Rev. James Heidinger II, president and publisher of Good News, which prints a magazine by the same name for the denomination's evangelical caucus.

"The statement is an encouragement to the United Methodists in Nebraska and across the church who have been unsure of the bishops' resolve on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex covenant ceremonies," Heidinger said. "The statement puts the bishops firmly in support of the prohibitive stance in the Social Principles."

"The pastoral letter shows that the bishops have made a commitment to uphold the doctrine and Discipline of the United Methodist Church," said Patricia Miller, executive director of the Confessing Movement.

When asked what would be done if the Judicial Council rules that the statement in the Social Principles on same-sex covenants is not legally binding, Carder said the bishops will uphold the Discipline. "The processes are already in force by which the Discipline is to be upheld."

The issue will not be resolved legislatively, Carder said. "The issue is going to be resolved in Christian conferencing, and our holding one another in love and our holding one another accountable."

The Creech trial, using the United Methodist process, attempted to hold people accountable, according to Carder. The decision by one jury in one annual conference "is not binding on other juries in that same conference," he said.

The reactions to the verdict and the heightened awareness of the same-sex issue do not mean that the church's process does not work, he said. "If a pastor charged with another form of misconduct is found innocent or not guilty by a jury, that does not mean the church therefore supports that misconduct."

Carder said the bishops' letter should not be seen as law. "Church law is determined by the Judicial Council."

The bishops said they will develop a teaching document that identifies the critical and doctrinal foundations of the faith for addressing issues facing the church. They plan to begin developing that paper in an extended session of their next meeting, which begins Nov. 2 in Atlanta.

Carder said the teaching document will focus on:

  • the mission of the church in the Wesleyan tradition;
  • the meaning of authority, including that of Scripture, the church, and the denomination's polity and ethical pronouncements; and
  • the meaning and source of unity.

Mel Semrad, a member of First Church in Omaha and a critic of Creech's actions, welcomed the bishops' statement.

After the Creech trial verdict, Semrad and more than 250 other members left the Omaha congregation to hold worship services at a local high school until the same-sex union issue is resolved. He also led a group of demonstrators that met the bishops after a memorial service on April 26, at the start of the council's weeklong meeting. The demonstrators, consisting of about 300 clergy and laity members, sought assurance from the bishops that church tradition and the standards of United Methodism would be upheld.

"I am quite pleased at the pastoral letter," Semrad said. "This did affirm and bring us back to the doctrinal foundations of the United Methodist Church. This letter is so essential as a first step in moving us forward in United Methodism. . . .It was essential and critical to have that affirmation."

If the bishops had not addressed the controversial issues as strongly as they did, he said, "United Methodism, in my opinion, could have been even more irreparably damaged."

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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