By Heather Hahn*
LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS) — A United Methodist polity expert’s call to halt church trials related to the denomination’s stance on homosexuality is sparking conversation both in the blogosphere and within the Council of Bishops.
The Rev. Thomas E. Frank, a historian of Methodism and professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., issued an open letter Nov. 13 to the Council of Bishops saying for the sake of church unity, trials need to stop — and the bishops have the authority to stop them.
Frank is the author of the frequently used textbook Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church. He is also the son of the late Bishop Eugene Frank.
“I am not asking you to change the church’s statements on homosexuality,” Frank wrote to the bishops. “Clearly that is not within the powers of the Council. I am asking you to acknowledge that a large number of faithful United Methodist ministers in good standing cannot in conscience restrict their pastoral duties to accord with these statements.”
Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner — the Council of Bishops president — said the bishops, meeting this week in Lake Junaluska, would consider Frank’s letter and other public reaction in their deliberations.
“We want to consider all the thoughts of all the people who are approaching us as we try to find our way,” Wenner said. “We are listening to all the people in the church, and we are listening to the guidance of God through biblical reflections, prayer and discernment.”
Meanwhile, United Methodists who usually take opposing views on the issue both dismissed Frank’s proposal as a way forward for the church.
Good News, an unofficial, evangelical United Methodist group that advocates maintaining the denomination’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, issued a response to Frank’s letter on Nov. 13.
“The bishops’ failure to act would only cause further harm to the church by revealing the church’s inability to uphold its teachings, encouraging further splintering of our fragile unity,” the Good News statement said.
“The door would open for clergy, laity, and congregations to disobey other requirements of the (Book of) Discipline with which they disagree, inviting chaos and anarchy within the church.”
The Rev. Amy DeLong, an elder in Wisconsin who was convicted in 2011 by a church court of officiating at a same-sex union, likewise disagreed with Frank’s proposal.
“I think calling for a moratorium on trials gives bishops an out about how to handle what faithful people are doing,” she told United Methodist News Service. “By not having trials, we are just pushing that under the rug. …The exclusionary policies of The United Methodist Church are not being addressed. Until we address the exclusion and oppression that exists, nothing will change and we will be a divided church.”
Both DeLong as well as representatives of Good News are among the observers of this week’s Council of Bishops meeting.
A time of tension
The Council of Bishops is meeting as the denomination faces increasing public pressure and public division over how best to minister with gay and lesbian individuals.
In closed-door sessions this week, bishops have been discussing how to respond after retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, in defiance of church law, officiated at a ceremony in Birmingham, Ala., that celebrated the marriage of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince.
Before the ceremony, Birmingham Area Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett had requested Talbert not to go to Birmingham for that purpose. The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops also urged Talbert not to officiate, reminding him that conducting same-sex wedding ceremonies is a chargeable offense under church law.
The Book of Discipline, the church’s law book, since 1972 has stated that all people are of sacred worth, but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Church law bans United Methodist clergy from performing, and churches from hosting, “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, approves the contents of the Discipline and is the only body that officially speaks for the church. Bishops do not have a vote at the assembly, which will next meet in May 2016.
The bishops met in closed executive session this morning, Thursday, Nov. 14 and have another closed meeting scheduled for tonight.
Sermons reflect differences
While most of the conversation is private, the sermons in the bishops’ worship services this week have all alluded in some way to the challenges before the church and exhorted church leaders to keep their focus on their common mission in Jesus Christ.
The preachers so far this week are all new bishops who were elected last year. They include Nashville (Tenn.) Area Bishop William T. McAlilly, West Virginia Area Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, Columbia (S.C.) Area Bishop L. Jonathan Holston and Nigeria Area Bishop John Wesley Yohanna. Wenner plans to lead worship on Friday, Nov. 15.
Steiner Ball called her listeners to walk together with respect even when they disagree. She quoted the evangelist Billy Graham as comparing churchgoers to coals. “Together, they make a glow but separate they die out,” she said.
“As bishops, our church is crying out for us to lead in… how to live together in ways that are respectful,” she preached.
Yohanna, one of two new African bishops, had a slightly different message. He said a problem with The United Methodist Church is that its love is overflowing, and like too much water, it is making a mess.
“We need to ask Christ to control the fruit of love that is overflowing,” he preached.
At the same time, he also urged the bishops to be patient with each other. After all, he noted, patience is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
After the sermon, he told United Methodist News Service that he was preaching not just about the church’s position on human sexuality but also the church’s tendency “to take on anything that comes.”
Still, he added, he does not want to see the Book of Discipline disregarded.
“That’s what binds us together,” he said. “So we should respect it, be patient with one another and keep on dialoguing with one another. Let’s keep talking, and I believe we’ll arrive one day.”
Other challenges under church law
The challenge before the bishops will last beyond this week.
On Nov. 18, the Rev. Frank Schaefer in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference will go before a church trial for performing the same-sex wedding of his son in 2007. A complaint was filed one month before the statute of limitations ran out and word of the trial became public Sept. 20.
In a show of solidarity with Schaefer, more than 50 of his fellow United Methodist pastors participated in the wedding of a same-sex couple on Saturday, Nov. 9. The trial made headlines across the United States.
Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson, who leads the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, said she would not speak publicly about the case because she does not want to do anything to interfere with the trial court — the 13 clergy members who will constitute the jury.
At least three other clergy are now facing formal complaints related to the church’s stance on homosexuality.
The Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired seminary dean and elder in the New York Conference, is facing a formal complaint after officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son in 2012.
The Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy, also in the New York Conference, is facing a formal complaint that she is a “self-avowed practicing” lesbian, a chargeable offense under church law.
The Rev. Stephen Heiss, a pastor in the Upper New York Conference, is also facing a complaint for officiating at same-sex unions, including that of his daughter.
Bishops have referred the three cases to church counsels, the equivalent of prosecutors. In each case, the counsel will determine whether enough evidence supports going to trial or whether the complaint be dismissed.*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.