Pastoral Letter About the Sacramento 68 Decision

by Judith Stone

   This letter is from The Rev. Judith Stone, one of the Sacramento 68. It is reprinted with her permission. The following words are her opinions and not necessarily those of Affirmation, CORNET, or other members of the Sacramento 68, who have a variety of perspectives.

Dear Friends:

   I am writing this letter because I have been disturbed by public comments I have read in newspapers, which imply that the Committee on Investigation did not carefully consider the United Methodist Discipline, and abandoned United Methodist procedure. I believe these comments are distortions. They are being made by persons who did not sit through the hearings in their entirety. They impugn the integrity of the Committee on Investigation, the Bishop and Cabinet, and they ignore months of work by the Sacramento 68 (with the help of several lawyers, and numerous Elder Counsels) to base our argument on obedience to the Discipline.

   In The United Methodist Church, the Committee on Investigation is charged with investigating complaints to see if they warrant trial. In order for a hearing to be meaningful, that committee must be free to make either finding: "Forward the complaint as Charges with ensuing trial" or "Dismiss the Complaint, it is not ratified." If only one finding is possible, then there is no procedure, but a "mock trial or "mock procedure." The committee goes through the motions, but in fact the accused were silenced from the outset, their arguments not heard but disregarded out-of-hand. This did not happen. We had a full hearing.

   The charge against us was that we violated the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church not that we "broke a law". I want to summarize the response to that complaint and the arguments of the Sacramento 68, which were based on the Discipline of The United Methodist Church.

   First we argued that the United Methodist Discipline speaks with two voices: One voice, found in paragraphs 65F and 65G of the United Methodist Discipline's Social Principles, states: "Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth" and "We recognize that sexuality is God's good gift to all persons. We believe that persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church, and society." This voice in the Discipline is contradicted or confused by another voice which says, "...we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching...."

   Do you see the confusion? First we say "Homosexuals are persons of sacred worth. . . all sexuality is a good gift from God, and to be fully human this gift must be affirmed by the church, etc." Then we say that the church does not affirm this gift for homosexuals. It is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

   the Discipline speaks with one voice in paragraph 65C (ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers or in our churches) and another in paragraph 117:

"We recognize that God made all creation and saw that it was good. As a diverse people of God who bring special gifts and evidences of God's grace to the unity of the Church and to society, we are called to be faithful to the example of Jesus' ministry to all persons.
"Inclusiveness means openness, acceptance and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church, the community and the world. Thus inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination.
"The mark of an inclusive society is one in which all persons are open, welcoming, fully accepting and supporting of all other persons, enabling them to participate fully in the life of the church, the community and the world."

   United Methodists are called to enable persons to participate fully in the life of the church, then forbidden to bless the unions of homosexual persons. Is this full participation with no semblance of discrimination? If the voices are contradictory how does one hold to both sides of a contradiction? Paragraph 117 predates paragraph 65C, it can be argued therefore has the prior legal/Disciplinary claim.

   Here is why paragraph 65C seems discriminatory. The only justification within the Discipline for not condoning "the practice of homosexuality" is that it is not consistent with "Christian teaching." First let me say that United Methodist biblical scholars disagree about the nature and meaning of the Christian teaching about homosexuality. This Christian teaching referred to in the Social Principles comes from the Pauline Letters. Biblical scholars disagree on the nature of this teaching.

   The United Methodist Church does not follow the teaching of Paul on all counts. It has determined his teaching on the acceptability of slavery is not to be followed. The Social Principles contain a vehement condemnation of slavery. The UMC has determined that Paul's teaching on the "headship" of the man, in marriage, is not to be followed. The Social Principles commend an equal relationship within the marriage bond. the Discipline has determined that we do not need to follow Paul's proclamations concerning women not speaking and not teaching in the church. United Methodists ordain women and allow women to be Sunday School teachers. We do not set celibacy above marriage, as does Paul. To follow Paul so emphatically in this ONE teaching regarding homosexuality, when even United Methodist Biblical experts disagree about the clarity and interpretation of this teaching, can be regarded as discrimination against homosexual persons. How would you explain this inconsistent application of Paul's teachings?

   the Discipline says that the primary entity with which clergy covenant is the Annual Conference. It was argued that the decision our conference made to be a Reconciling Conference in 1987, and which has guided the ministry of our conference since that time, informed the decision of the California 68 to participate in a Holy Union for two leaders in our Annual Conference. In the decision to be a Reconciling Conference we gave our word to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community that we would advocate for their full inclusion in every level of the life of the Annual Conference. We made a covenant with them that is binding upon our Annual Conference and upon its ministry.

   The Social Principles in Paragraph 65H finds it unacceptable to discriminate against the civil liberties and human rights of homosexual persons. Discrimination against the right to full participation in the church is tolerated. An expert in clergy ethics reminded the Committee on Investigation of the historic tradition of "reverent dissent" by clergy in the service of justice and conscience. Our tradition began with "protest" by Martin Luther against the Catholic church and the obedience by John Wesley to conscience rather than to the canon law of the church of England. Conscience "held them captive."

   Additionally the Social Principles of the Discipline state in Paragraph 65G: "We also recognize our limited understanding of this complex gift [human sexuality] and encourage the medical, theological and social science disciplines to combine in a determined effort to understand homosexuality more completely. We call the Church to take the leadership role in bringing together these disciplines to address this complex issue." In recent years the medical community and the social sciences have consistently made official statements saying emphatically that homosexuality is not an aberration, not a psychological problem or moral disorder, but more likely a genetic given. United Methodists are both called by the Discipline to take leadership in consulting these disciplines and then are forbidden to act upon their findings. Again the Discipline speaks with two voices. One voice allows; the other prohibits.

   We believe we were obedient to the Discipline. By speaking in two voices the Discipline either places everyone in a double bind (How do you hold to both sides of a contradiction?) or gives persons who disagree liberty, by granting concessions to both sides.

   The cause of the Sacramento 68 was helped by Bishop William Dew who was called to testify as an expert in the Discipline. He was asked to give an interpretation of the word "shall" which is used in paragraph 65C: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers. . ." The word "shall" appears in the Discipline over 2,400 times.

   I do not have the transcript before me, but Bishop Dew testified to the effect that "shall" gives guidance. When the Discipline tells a local church it shall organize itself in a certain way -- it gives direction to the local church. Does it mean the congregation absolutely must organize in the way described? No, there is some liberality. Guidance has been given. When a congregation does not pay the apportionment that it "shall" pay, has it been disobedient to the Discipline? Bishop Dew said that "shall" grants some liberality in interpretation.

   Finally Judicial Council Decision 833 says that failure to obey paragraph 65C renders one "liable" for charges. The word "liable" also leaves room for liberality of interpretation.

   Points of law were argued before the committee. The Committee on Investigation is given the task of deciding whether there are reasonable grounds to forward the complaint. (The cost of the Greg Dell Trial was $120,000.00 dollars so there had better be good reason to ratify the complaint) If three members of the seven member committee did not vote to ratify the complaint it would not be ratified, i.e., it would be dismissed.

   The Bishop abided by the procedure the Discipline outlines and by the decision of the Committee on Investigation. Those who say procedure has not been followed are really saying they disagree with the outcome. I understand that upset and anger from a different perspective. I have disagreed with the outcome of the trials against Jimmy Creech and Greg Dell, after reading most of the transcripts, I have not felt they received justice. I grieve for them as others grieve this decision.

The Rev. Judith Stone