Methodist bishops hold first dialogue on homosexuality, discuss racism
by M. Garlinda Burton, director of United Methodist
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (UMNS)- May 7, 2002 - The
denomination's 30-year-old ban on ordaining gay men and lesbians
remains, but United Methodist leaders admit there is a large and vocal
minority of faithful, biblically grounded Christians who disagree with
the official stand. To that end, the United Methodist bishops meeting
April 28-May 3 participated in the first of four churchwide
conversations designed to "create open, grace-filled space"
for people to discuss, disagree about and acknowledge the "deep
wounds" experienced by the church around this issue.
For nearly 20 years, church law as recorded in the
Book of Discipline has included a ban on the ordination of
"self-avowed practicing homosexuals" and has espoused
"fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness." And while
acknowledging the "sacred worth" of homosexuals, church law
condemns homosexual practices as "incompatible with Christian
After a particularly tense series of votes on
homosexuality - and pro-gay-rights demonstrations - at the 2000 General
Conference, delegates asked the denomination's Commission on Christian
Unity and Interreligious Concerns and the Council of Bishops to sponsor
churchwide conversations on the issue. The purpose: to model for local
congregations honest, thoughtful dialogue to replace win-or-lose
wrangling on what is viewed by many as the denomination's most
At their spring meeting, members of the Council of
Bishops sat around tables to discuss their feelings and theological
understandings about the issue that many have feared would split the
9.7-million-member denomination. Their comments came in response to
papers presented by two respected scholars, the Rev. Billy Abraham of
Perkins School of Theology in Dallas and the Rev. Donald Messer of Iliff
School of Theology in Denver.
Quoting Galatians 3:28-29, Messer declared that
inclusiveness of all people was a "precondition of being the one
catholic, apostolic" church of Jesus Christ. He also asked the
bishops to consider whether, like the church's "dramatic"
change in how we now view divorce, there is some "new revelation or
understanding from God" about sexual identify.
Abraham countered that the gospel of Christ "is
not about inclusivism or exclusivism. It's not even about sex."
Rather, he said that the church - and its bishops - is called to ensure
"that God's Word for us in Christ is fulfilled and practiced."
He stressed that the "final ultimate word of God" clearly
affirms sexual unions among married, heterosexual partners only.
In their follow-up conversations, the bishops weighed
in. Chicago Area Bishop C. Joseph Sprague took issue with the notion
that homosexuality is, by definition, flawed. He asserted that if God
creates gay men and lesbians, "God brings them to wholeness where
Retired Bishop Richard Looney of Lake Junaluska, N.C.,
defended the church's current stand. "I would hope that our current
position would be viewed as a loving one. We don't have signs outside
our churches that say, 'No homosexuals allowed,'" he said. "We
do have a position on the practice of homosexuality, and it is
consistent with the Scriptures."
The three other churchwide dialogues will involve
members of the General Council on Ministries, youth and young adults,
and people of color in leadership in the denomination. Planners hope to
encourage similar conversations at the regional and local church levels.
The bishops also spent a day examining racism and its
effect on their work and life. They discussed the challenges of
appointing pastors across lines of race, and asserted the need for more
training and preparation for congregations and clergy in order to make
successful cross-racial appointments.
Led by the Rev. Chester Jones, top staff executive of
the churchwide Commission on Religion and Race, the workshop challenged
the bishops to explore their own roles in either promoting or
eradicating racism from the process of appointing and promoting clergy.
Bishop William Dew of the Phoenix Area was among those
who stressed the importance of education and training for local churches
in receiving and working with a pastor of a race or culture different
than that of the congregation. "You can never prepare the church
enough," he said.
He also urged his colleagues to identify churches and
pastors that are ready for cross-racial appointment and to offer them
"visible support" before, during and after the assignment is
For a church about to receive a new pastor from
another racial group, the role of the current pastor in that slot
"plays a key role in whether or not the transition is a smooth
one," said Bishop Joel Martinez of the denomination's San Antonio
(Texas) Area. "They lay the groundwork for the church, so we've got
to work with all pastors and the cabinet to see that cross-racial
Still, the bishops' tenacity and commitment to
desegregating churches determine the success of pastors appointed across
racial lines, declared Bishop G. Lindsey Davis of the Atlanta Area.
"The main stumbling block to cross-racial
appointments belong at our feet," he said. "If we lack the
moral courage to do what we need to do, then racism will continue to be
a problem." In other business during their spring meeting, the