September 17, 1998

Impact of Judicial Council ruling still being discussed

By United Methodist News Service*

United Methodists continue to discuss the impact of a decision on homosexual unions released Aug. 11 by the church's Judicial Council.

The nine-member "supreme court" ruled that United Methodist clergy who conduct homosexual unions or allow such ceremonies to be held in United Methodist Churches can be charged with disobeying the discipline of the church. Prior to the ruling, some had argued that since the language was in the church's Social Principles, it was not enforceable law. However, the Judicial Council said it "has the effect of church law, notwithstanding its placement. . . and therefore, governs the conduct of the ministerial office."

The issue arose within the denomination last September following the celebration of a "union" of two women by the Rev. Jimmy Creech, then pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Neb. His bishop warned him that doing so would be a violation of church law. A church trial failed to reach the necessary two-thirds majority to find Creech guilty, but bishops of the church's eight-state South Central Jurisdiction, including Texas, asked the Judicial Council to rule on the matter.

While much informal discussion has taken place since the decision, the North Texas Conference is the only one of the 66 regional bodies in the United States to employ a "day of listening" approach to the issue.

Meeting Saturday, Sept. 2, in Denton, Texas, some 500 United Methodists spent the day listening for God's will as it specifically relates to the 10 words newly defined as church law: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

Bishop William B. Oden, in opening remarks Sept. 12 acknowledged that the issue under discussion is at the heart of many concerns across the church and said that, through this special day, conference lay and clergy leaders were "putting their concerns on top of the table."

The Rev. Leighton Farrell, superintendent of the Dallas South District, summarized changes in church law regarding homosexuality since creation of the United Methodist Church in 1968. He noted that the subject first entered the Book of Discipline when the 1972 General Conference adopted a section of the Social Principles declaring homosexual practice "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Subsequent conferences have prohibited funding of homosexual causes, denied ordination to any self-avowed practicing homosexual persons and, as of the most recent (1996) General Conference, prohibited the celebration of homosexual unions within United Methodist Churches and by United Methodist clergy.

At the same time, United Methodist policy recognizes that "homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons" are individuals of sacred worth and that all persons need the ministry and guidance of the church. While the church officially condemns the practice of homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian Teaching", it also affirms that "God's grace is available to all" and commits the church to be in ministry "for and with all persons."

Deeply personal statements consumed most of the remainder of the morning session in Denton's First United Methodist Church sanctuary. Invited speakers who expressed divergent views on homosexuality, inclusiveness with the church and the authority of scripture were the Rev. John Thornburg, Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas; Laura Echols-Richte, director of adult ministries at St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Plano; the Rev. Fred Durham, Tyler Street United Methodist Church in Dallas; and the Rev. Richard Dunagin, Lake Highlands United Methodist Church in Dallas.

The four also participated on a panel with Oden as moderator. Following lunch, participants divided into 35 groups of 10 to 12 individuals for discussion. Leaders of the small groups were given a sheet with 14 suggestions, including, "Remember the purpose of the day is to listen, not to reach some conclusion or decision." The leaders were also advised to "allow freedom for passion and emotion, but to try to keep persons listening."

Oden said all participants would receive copies of responses recorded from the small-group discussions. He told a brief news conference between morning and afternoon sessions that the day had shown that North Texas United Methodists are "on the same journey but going by different paths." He also said he prays that all can remain within the United Methodist "tent" and that gay and lesbian United Methodists can know that they are welcomed and fully accepted in the life and ministries of the church.

Other annual conferences had similar events following the Judicial Council ruling but nothing of the magnitude of North Texas. About 70 people attended a discussion meeting hosted by Michigan Area Bishop Donald A. Ott Aug. 16 at University United Methodist Church in Lansing. Ott spent nearly 75 minutes talking about the decision.

Tension in discussing the issue was obvious, right from the start, according to Erik Alsgaard, editor of the Michigan Christian Advocate.

"This decision extends language that hurts," said Dale Myrtle, Bay City, the father of two homosexual children. "This church has a homophobia. All too often the majority shuns the minority and abides in ignorance," he said.

Those comments drew the ire of the Rev. John Grenfell Jr., a retired pastor, who said he has trouble dialoguing "with someone who thinks I'm ignorant. We have some honest differences and how we administer that is crucial. If we're going to have the pluralism we pride ourselves on, we better find ways to manage it."

The bishop pleaded with United Methodists to stay connected. "Do not be dismissive of what others have to say," he said. "Be in dialogue with others. Stay connected with the whole body. Value the tension. I want to be in a church like that."

The Rev. Jerry Toshalis of Trinity Church in Grand Rapids said the Judicial Council ruling raises a serious question. "I have not been asked yet to do a gay wedding. On the surface, this decision seems clear: I am told what I can't do. That is not sufficient. I cannot, in good conscience, say (to a gay couple), 'the church says no'."

The Rev. Tim Boal of Montague said he was troubled by the "lack of symmetry" in the decision: "I can bless somebody's iguana or their dog, but if I bless their love, I'm gone."

Making a plea for United Methodists to listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit was the Rev. Les Longden, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Lansing. "We need to put issues (like this one) on the table and discuss it. Consensus in the church, though, is not the same thing as consensus in the world. Consensus in the body of Christ is to not rush to judgment. We need to listen to the Spirit's guidance; it's something (the church) has that others don't."

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

* Information for the this article came from an article in the North Texas United Methodist Reporter, written by John A. Lovelace, editor emeritus of the Dallas-based United Methodist Reporter, and an article in the Michigan Christian Advocate, written by Erik Alsgaard, editor.

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