August 14, 1998
WASHINGTON (UMNS) Reactions from across the United Methodist Church to a Judicial Council ruling on same-sex union ceremonies have been predictably mixed.
In an Aug. 11 decision, the denomination's nine-member "supreme court" said pastors who perform homosexual marriage ceremonies can be brought before church court and risk having their clergy credentials removed. A prohibition against clergy performing homosexual unions or having such ceremonies in United Methodist churches has the status of law and is not merely advisory, the council ruled.
The controversy was sparked by the Rev. Jimmy Creech, former pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha who performed a same-sex union ceremony in September of 1997. He was suspended by Nebraska Bishop Joel Martinez but reinstated in March after the jury in a church trial narrowly acquitted him of disobeying the order and discipline of the church. He was not re-appointed to First Church at the regular sessions of the Nebraska Annual Conference in June and is now on leave and residing in North Carolina.
The trial decision hinged on the status of the language placed in the 1996 Book of Discipline, which said "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." Asked to rule on the issue by the bishops of the eight-state South Central Jurisdiction, the Judicial Council put to rest the argument of some that the same-sex language was not binding because the Social Principles are advisory. The council did not rule on other portions of the Social Principles.
Creech, issued a statement to the media via the Internet expressing grief at the decision and calling for "ecclesiastical disobedience."
"The church of John Wesley, founded upon principles of social justice and piety, will now be prosecuting pastors for praying God's blessing upon same-sex couples who make covenants of love and fidelity," he wrote. "The church has circumscribed itself into a closed, exclusive community that is in conflict with Jesus' vision of the realm of God where all are welcome, included and accepted."
He went on to appeal to United Methodist ministers to protest this decision by defying the prohibition and publicly celebrating same-sex covenants. He also called laity and clergy who disagree with the anti-gay language in the Book of Discipline to organize for changing the church's law at the next General Conference in the year 2000. The Judicial Council interprets church law but the only body that can make official policy is the General Conference, a 1000-member international body which meets every four years.
Bishop Bruce Blake of the Oklahoma Area, one of two bishops who made oral presentations to the Judicial Council Sept. 7 in Dallas, said, "Now we have resolution. We have clarity instead of confusion." He praised the processes used by the church to deal with disagreement and confusion.
"We spent a lot of energy in our denomination on this issue," Blake said. "I just hope that we can now take some of that energy and focus on the mission of the church and make disciples because that's what we need to be about."
Bishop George W. Bashore of the Pittsburgh Area, president of the denomination's Council of Bishops, said the pastoral letter issued by Council of Bishops in Lincoln, Neb., April 30 "is not altered in any way by the Judicial Council decision." He expressed hope that the bishops will follow through on the commitments made at that time.
In the pastoral letter, the bishops pledged to "uphold the General Conference's action on the theological, ethical and polity [church government] 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."
Retired Bishop Jack M. Tuell, Greenbank, Wash., a former attorney, said he was not surprised by the decision. "Everybody put a great deal of weight on the idea that the Social Principles are substantively different than legislation. I think a more pertinent key to this decision is the kind of language involved and the fact that it is internal to the United Methodist Church."
He explained that the Social Principles deal with many external things, like war and labor relations, over which the church has no control. "But we do have control over how we conduct ministry in the United Methodist Church and what United Methodist ministers can and can't do." He also observed that few places in the Social Principles use the words "shall" or "shall not."
"The fact that this prohibition against same-sex unions is in the Social Principles does not detract from what appears to be the clear intent of the language," Tuell added.
Two leaders of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, the only churchwide agency that has declared itself a "reconciling" agency, issued a joint reaction, signed by the commission's president, Bishop Roy I. Sano of the Los Angeles Area, and its general secretary, the Rev. Bruce W. Robbins.
"The recent Judicial Council decision may help United Methodists understand the intentions and will of General Conference regarding homosexual unions," they said. "However, deep divisions will remain within the denomination. The Holy Spirit, working through committed church members, can lead us forward into greater unity in God's mission."
Sano and Robbins said they believe there are "faithful and Scripture-abiding United Methodists" who oppose and support homosexual unions. The commission, they noted, "believes a most important task before all of us is seeking to hear and understand the convictions of United Methodists who differ from ourselves. Too often we believe that 'our' side follows the gospel's call and the 'other' side does not."
"We encourage United Methodists in local churches, districts and annual conferences to read, study and listen together as we hope to discern new possibilities and options for our divided church," they concluded. Sano and Robbins recommended reading and studying "In Search of Unity," a document created by 23 people of diverse theological and social opinions.
Reconciling Congregations, a group of United Methodist congregations and other organizations
that welcome participation of all, regardless of sexual orientation, said, "The church has once again sent a message of inhospitality to lesbian, gay and bisexual persons and their families and friends." Expressing concern that such people will continue to be second-class members of the church, the Aug. 11 statement concluded, " "God's Spirit of inclusion and justice will prevail."
The Rev. Robert L. Kuyper, Bakersfield, Calif., founder of Transforming Congregations movement and editor of its newsletter, said he thought most people in his organization would be pleased. The Transforming Congregations movement considers the practice of homosexuality a sin and seeks to change people with a homosexual orientation.
"I hope this means we can get back to doing ministry with people who want to leave homosexual lifestyle and move on from the debate," Kuyper said. "I think the church wants to be compassionate to people trapped in homosexual lifestyles, but they don't want to endorse it. My real fear is this decision will be ignored by many in the church and will continue to cause controversy and will detract us from doing ministry with people who are suffering."
The Rev. John Ed Mathison, Montgomery, Ala., president of the Confessing Movement, said he was delighted with and in agreement with the decision of the Judicial Council. This movement began in 1995 and stresses a commitment to the "doctrinal and moral integrity" of the church.
"This decision goes some distance in restoring trust in the authority of the courts of our church, a trust that has been seriously eroded by the trial in Nebraska," Mathison said in a statement issued Aug. 11. "We pray for our bishops who will bear the responsibility of seeing that all clergy abide by this decision."
Mathison said the decision gives "great encouragement in our work for renewal" and called upon supporters to redouble their efforts to work for effective renewal of the confessional stance of the church.
The Rev. Kathryn Johnson, new executive director of Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), a 90-year-old advocacy group, expressed dismay at the ruling. "The Judicial Council has broken with decades of tradition in which the Social Principles served as a source of guidance to United Methodists," she said.
"The way in which the Social Principles have encouraged dialogue and reflection has been one of the strengths of our denomination," she said. "To treat portions of the Social Principles as law is to detract from this strength."
The Rev. Jeanne Knepper of Portland, Ore., and the Rev. Morris Floyd of Minneapolis, Minn., speaking for Affirmation and CORNET, called the decision tragic. "United Methodist clergy will now put their vocation on the line when they respond to the unambiguous call of the Gospel to be in ministry with all God's people," they said. "This prohibition is unlike the other limits within which United Methodist clergy must operate because it proscribes a specific pastoral action." Affirmation is a caucus concerned with gay and lesbian issues; CORNET is an off-shoot dealing specifically with the Creech trial and same-sex union issues.
Knepper and Floyd explained that the Judicial Council is not "the problem" because it has only clarified what it understood to be the law of the denomination. They predict the prohibition will eventually be set aside as "contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the constitution of the church."
The Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president and publisher of Good News, the denomination's oldest evangelical caucus, expressed gratitude for the council's "clear and precise" ruling. "It has been clear to most of us that this was the obvious intent of General Conference when it passed the prohibitive statement by a strong vote at Denver in 1966."
The decision will help renew the confidence of both pastors and laity in the United Methodist system, Heidinger said. "It is a decision that will be welcomed by most all grass-roots United Methodists. If General Conference takes clear action that cannot then be enforced, we are in real trouble. This will help."