Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Leaving for Liberia

Tomorrow I leave for Liberia with a study team that will meet with workers and leaders of the Liberian labor movement. We will hopefully help to build a stronger relationship between the workers of Liberia and the United States.

Next Sunday Jane will join me and we will spend a week visiting with our United Methodist brothers and sisters in Liberia.

United Methodism, like the United States, has a special relationship with Liberia. Most of the freed slaves, sponsored by the American Colonization Society, who migrated to establish the Republic of Liberia were Methodists. One of the first things they did upon arriving in Liberia was to build Methodist churches.

You can find a report of our last trip to Liberia in February here and a very helpful and touching interview with the Rev. Sabah T. Dweh-Chenneh, a pastor who works with youth and young adults in Liberia, here.

More information about United Methodism in Liberia is available from the General Board of Global Ministries.

Jane and I are grateful to Bishop John Innis for facilitating our visit. He is a friend of Foundry Church, and our friend.

I hope to post from Liberia, but you can never be sure. Liberia depends on gasoline-fueled generators for electricity. We appreciate your prayers. We expect to return July 19.

Also, please keep Foundry's Volunteers In Mission who leave tomorrow morning for Zimbabwe in your thought and prayers.


Lifewatch, Reconciling Ministries, the United Methodist Building, and Lake Junaluska: Why We Worry

The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, or Lifewatch, is a caucus within the United Methodist Church that wants to change our church's stance on abortion.

An unsigned editorial in its June 2005 newsletter entitled "What Motivates Lifewatch?" states:

"Why does Lifewatch exist? Why does Lifewatch do what we do? Why does Lifewatch witness within The United Methodist Church today? A few critics might contend that Lifewatch is
nothing but a small band of United Methodist malcontents who cannot get along with the larger
church and who enjoy stirring up a little trouble within the denomination. A few others might claim that Lifewatch is a group of Republicans who are dedicated to pushing United Methodism in a more Republican direction. To be sure, Lifewatch probably does attract a few malcontents and people primarily interested in partisan politics."

The editorial goes on to say that, in spite of this, the taskforce is theologically motivated. The editorial concludes by explaining that being loyal to the United Methodist Church means trying to change its policy on abortion. It says:

"Loyalty to the church is not, and never has been, blind loyalty to the church as it is. Authentic loyalty to The United Methodist Church demands that the truth be spoken and written about life and abortion, that love and respect be displayed toward all in the church, and that moral falsehoods and blind spots in the church be identified
and corrected. Authentic loyalty to The United Methodist Church involves truth and love at all
times, and disagreement and discipline at some times."

However I might feel about this specific issue, I understand and resonate with Lifewatch's logic. Being loyal to the United Methodist Church does not mean agreeing with every position in the Book of Discipline as it is currently written. The taskforce has put it well: "Authentic loyalty to The United Methodist Church involves truth and love at all times, and disagreement and discipline at others."

This past January 24 the taskforce held its annual service of worship. As is normally the case, the service was held on the same day and in the same city as the national March for Life, "a time for prolife people to gather and peacefully protest the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton," according to a group called Right to Life of Michigan which sent busloads of marchers to the event.

The preacher for the taskforce's service was Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the Florida Area of the United Methodist Church. Bishop Whitaker introduced his sermon by calling the United Methodist Church to "a truer and more faithful witness" on the issue of abortion. We should not assume that the current position stated in the Book of Discipline settles the question, he suggested. "Nothing is ever settled in the church," he said.

Again, the principle laid out by Bishop Whitaker is compelling. As a church we cannot ever be satisfied that we have reached final truth. All our positions must be open to "a truer and more faithful witness." The bishop put it well: "Nothing is ever settled in the church."

Now, what I want us to notice is that, even though the goal of The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality is to change a position passed by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the taskforce held its annual worship service in the chapel of the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C. (See here.) The taskforce has held its annual service in the chapel of the United Methodist Building for a number of years --at least since 2001. Every year it has held the service there on the same day as the national March for Life protesting Supreme Court decisions.

So far as I know, no one has suggested it is inappropriate for a caucus that intends to change a position voted by General Conference to meet in the chapel of a United Methodist-owned building. So far as I know, no one has objected to a bishop of the church participating in a service that encourages a change in a position duly voted into existence and established by General Conference.

Compare this to the fierce objections by the Good News Movement and the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) against the Reconciling Ministries Network's Convo 2005 being held at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, a conference center affiliated with the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

Mark Tooley of the IRD has issued a statement entitled "Lake Junaluska to Host Pro-Homosexuality Rally." The Good News Movement has endorsed Tooley's statement by posting it on its e-zine.

First, let us note Tooley's misleading and inflammatory tactic of calling a convocation a "rally." If you read Tooley's statement you will note other exaggerations, such as calling Reconciling Congregations "a lobbying group."

But even if we were to ignore the exaggerations and distortions in Tooley's statement, consider his objections to the Reconciling Ministry Network (RMN) holding its convo at Lake Junaluska. He objects because the group disagrees with a position passed by General Conference and because it advocates for a change in the church's stance.

According to Tooley's own statement, Lake Junaluska is not underwriting the RMN convo. Tooley quotes Lake Junaluska administrator Joetta Rinehart: "Lake Junaluska is renting the facility to Reconciling, not subsidizing 'Hearts on Fire' [the convo]. She said The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) had been consulted, and GCFA agreed that the disciplinary prohibition against funding of pro-homosexuality advocacy is not being violated."

I believe The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality uses the chapel of the United Methodist Building for free. Through the General Board of Church and Society, the United Methodist Church has been subsidizing this annual gathering purposed to change a position passed and approved by General Conference. No one who disagrees with the taskforce's agenda has complained. Yet RMN renting space at Lake Junaluska is a hot issue.

A friend sent me a copy of a letter written by James V. Heidinger II , president of the Good News Movement and publisher of Good News magazine. According to my friend the letter has been distributed widely among leaders within the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Because I trust my friend, I will reproduce Heidinger's letter here:

June 16, 2005
Dear United Methodist Friend:
This letter comes to you as a leader in the SE Jurisdiction, to let you know of an event scheduled for Labor Day weekend at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. I want you to have the information about the event and ask that you pray about this matter and consider writing a letter or sending an email about it.

The conference “Hearts on Fire,” is being sponsored by Reconciling Ministries, one of the several caucus groups within the United Methodist Church that advocates for the acceptance of homosexual practice. You may wish to visit the Reconciling Ministries web site at: http://rmnetwork.org/.

The web site includes this mission statement: “Reconciling Ministries Network is a national grassroots organization that exists to enable full participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the United Methodist Church, both in policy and practice.”

Under Reconciling Ministries Clergy, there is this statement: “The RMN is comprised of persons called to ordained ministry with the UMC who summon the church to a deeper level of spiritual and theological integrity in relationship to persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities and their full inclusion in all aspects of the church’s life.”

The reference to “full inclusion in all aspects of the church’s life” has in mind, of course, ordained ministry, which the Book of Discipline strictly and carefully forbids. The network also indicates it is dedicated to “teaching, organizing, strategizing, resistance and support for one another . . .” What is being “resisted” is the church’s present standards concerning homosexuality. What is being taught, organized, and strategized are ways people can circumvent and ultimately change the Book of Discipline on this issue.

The “Hearts on Fire” brochure states “Together, we will be . . . Singing out God of Rainbow, Fiery Pillar, leading where the eagles soar as a rainbow community of faithful lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual disciples committed to justice!” (You can view the brochure at the RM web site by clingin on “Convo information page.”)

Many things concern me about this weekend. Quite troubling is the fact that speakers will include two active bishops, Bishop Minerva Carcano and Bishop Susan Morrison, and one retired bishop, Bishop Richard Wilke. This is troubling because our bishops are charged with implementing the standards in our Discipline, not dissenting from them. Also listed as a leader is Rev. Beth Stroud, the lesbian clergywoman from Pennsylvania who declared herself “self-avowed and practicing,” lost her credentials in a church trial, and then had them reinstated upon appeal. We are awaiting the Judicial Council to review the case and expect it will sustain the guilty verdict.

Another program leader mentioned is Rev. Karen Oliveto, the clergy woman from San Francisco who performed eight same-sex ceremonies, seven at City Hall and one at the Bethany United Methodist Church. These were done during the time when the City Hall in San Francisco was considering such marriage legal.

Some will claim the RMN is just another caucus similar to Good News. But there is a significant difference. Good News and other evangelical caucuses actively support the Book of Discipline with regard to homosexuality, Reconciling Ministries is working to undermine and change the Book of Discipline.

We are writing to encourage folks who are concerned about this conference to speak out about it, both to your own bishop and district superintendent, as well as to the Executive Director at Lake Junaluska. He is Jimmy Carr and can be reached at SEJAC Office, P.O. Box 67, Lake Junaluska, NC 28745. Email him at: info@sejacumc.org

As you express your concern, do so in a gracious and respectful way, but also firmly in suggesting that such groups should not be permitted to use Lake Junaluska for such purposes. We certainly affirm the Discipline’s statement that all persons are of sacred worth, while we continue to acknowledge that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” (Par. 161).

Since the 2004 General Conference, the United Methodist Church has been reflecting and thinking about the theme of Unity. Bringing such a conference into the headquarters of the SE Jurisdiction will only further jeopardize the fragile unity of our church. This is not something folks across the SEJ can possibly feel good about.

Thanks for your concern and for whatever you might be able to do.
Yours in Christ,
James V. Heidinger II
President and Publisher

Does anyone else notice any inconsistency here? The Good News Movement has happily endorsed and promoted the subsidized services held by the The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality in the United Methodist Building. In a notice entitled "Celebrate Life," the November/December,2000, issue of Good News magazine encouraged its readers to attend the service "when you come to the March for Life in Washington, D.C." The taskforce services held on United Methodist property arguably really are part of a "rally."

But now Good News and IRD are up in arms because RMN convo attendees have rented space --paying their own way-- for a convocation on United Methodist property?

Friends, this is why we worry that if Good News and IRD and their supporters take over the denomination, professors and students will be told what they may and may not discuss, teach, and learn in United Methodist seminaries. This is why we worry that the United Methodist Publishing House will be told which books they are allowed to publish and which are to be censored. This is why we worry that bishops, pastors, and lay leaders will lose their freedom to disagree. This is why we worry that pastors will be told what we may and may not preach from our pulpits.

Those with a liberal spirit value the free exchange of ideas. They believe that freedom of thought and speech leads to greater learning and insight. They are not afraid of ideas differing from their own. So what if the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality disgrees with General Conference? Let's invite them into the United Methodist Building anyway. Let's listen to what they have to say. We may learn something. At the very least, we will have had the opportunity to fellowship together.

Given the outcry from Good News and the IRD, it is hard not to conclude that their attitude is exactly the opposite: Silence those who disagree with us. We have the truth already. Why should we listen to what anybody else has to say? If you disagree with us, go away and stay away.

This is why a liberal spirit is inherently healthier than the spirit that Good News and IRD appear to be articulating. I believe most United Methodist evangelicals are more open than this, and that they should let Good News and IRD know they do not appreciate these kinds of efforts to exclude and drive away those with whom they disagree.


About the Cal-Nevada Conference, Defining Status, and Blogging

I have been involved in two extended discussions about the resolution passed by the California-Nevada Conference defining sexual orientation as a status.

One conversation has been happening here at Untied Methodist in the comment section of my post reporting on the passing of the resolution. John Wilks of A Preacher's Journey and I have been having a spirited discussion about whether the California-Nevada Conference was defying General Conference (as he argues) or taking an appropriate action (as I believe).

Another long conversation has been happening at Locusts and Honey between myself, John the Methodist of Locusts and Honey, and Chris Morgan of Assembled Reflections.

Jay Voorhees of Only Wonder Understands and Methoblog also discussed this issue at some length on his Methocast # 10. (If you have not been listening to Methocast, I recommend it.)

I want to express a word of appreciation to those participating in these discussions, especially those who disagree with my viewpoint. I sense a weariness about this discussion among those who support the church's current position or see no way past it.

If I hear some voices on the Methodist blogosphere correctly, there is a sense that this issue has been debated at General Conference after General Conference. General Conference has consistently voted not to permit self-avowed practicing gay men nor lesbian women to be ordained or to be appointed to serve in our churches.

The efforts of those of us advocating the inclusion of lesbian and gay people in ordained ministry is seen as an expression of rebellion against the clear and consistent position taken by General Conference. Many who agree with General Conference's decision, or who think the church has spoken and we ought to listen, feel we are attempting to defy and undermine the authority of the church, and do not understand why we cannot accept what General Conference has decided. Enough already is the message.

So I am grateful for all of those who have continued to engage, to share and to listen, to wrestle with the issue. Where else but on the Methodist blogosphere has this conversation been taking place? Mostly we are hunkered down in our different camps talking with others who agree with us.

The dialogues here and at Locusts and Honey have helped me understand better the concerns of those who agree with General Conference's position or are tired of us opposing it. They have also helped me to realize that there are aspects of United Methodist's system of governance that some of them do not understand. (It is admittedly not easy; United Methodist polity keeps surprising me, and I have been working at understanding it a long time.) Then, there are some things about which we may never agree.

Let me give you some examples in case you don't want to plow through the 23 comments at Locusts and Honey and here at Untied Methodist.

Here is a concern I now better understand: Actions like the California-Nevada Conference resolution defining sexual orientation as a status can seem gamey to some observers.

Here is a powerful quote from a comment by Chris Morgan:

"... the whole thing seems like another act in a protracted game to me. Move: A prohibitory statement is placed in the Social Principles. Counter-move: It is declared that statements in the Social Principles are non-binding. Move: The prohibition is placed elsewhere. Counter-move: It is declared that the terms are insufficiently defined. Move: Definitions are offered. Counter-move: It is claimed that such statements represent doctrinal standards and were not appropriately arrived-at. Counter-move #2: It is suggested that the whole discussion to this point may violate the very constitution of the church, for after all we're talking about 'status.' And we must wait for the next move. "

Well, I happen to believe that the church's legislative and judicial processes are there to be used, and that using them is an affirmation of the church's order, not a game.

Yet, I can understand how it might seem that we are defiantly refusing to accept the decision of General Conference and looking for loopholes and tricks to avoid what seems to many to be the clear intent of General Conference.

I also think that the strong opponents of gays and lesbians in ordained ministry have been trickier (and more successful) than we have been. They have rewritten formulas to make sure their jurisdictions are better represented at General Conference than ours are. They have wooed central conference delegations and even sent teams to Africa to "train" central conference delegates on how to make speeches and vote at General Conference. They are trying to establish control over the general church agencies. They have tried to stack the Judicial Council in their favor. Our using Disciplinary legislative and judicial processes to challenge para. 304.3 seems tame compared to this.

Still, some of our efforts to challenge the position passed by General Conference may look to others as if we are grasping at straws or majoring in the minors. We need to explain ourselves better. We need to articulate that these are real issues we are raising--as I believe they are-- and not just attempts to irritate, confuse, or undermine.

Then, here is an example of United Methodist polity I have learned some United Methodists do not understand: General Conference cannot do anything it wants to do no matter how badly it wants to do it. General Conference cannot pass legislation that violates the core commitments and foundational principles laid out in the Constitution of the United Methodist Church. At least it cannot do this without expecting such legislation to be challenged and overturned by the church's judicial system.

When we argue that para. 304.3, which says that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve...," may be unconstitutional, we keep hearing that General Conference passed it with a clear majority and that it could not be clearer that General Conference's intent is to not ordain "self-avowed practicing homosexuals."

Well, General Conference delegates cannot pass unconstitutional legislation even if they want to really, really, really badly. If they want to pass such legislation, they have to either change the
Constitution first or expect that it will be challenged in the judicial system when attempts are made to enforce it. The Constitution can only be changed by a two-thirds vote of General Conference and a two-thirds vote of all annual conference delegates. General Conference delegates cannot change the Constitution by themselves, and they cannot violate it no matter how much they want to or how strongly they feel about it.

It may yet be determined that para. 304.3 is not unconstitutional, but it is totally proper and appropriate for us to raise the question. No one should criticize us for raising it on the grounds that the majority of General Conference delegates voted for it and really, really, really wanted it. A majority of General Conference delegates is not the final word within United Methodism. The Constitution is.

Finally, there are those things we may never agree about. An example is the disagreement between myself and John the Methodist at Locusts and Honey about how to interpret the Constitution. He thinks the guiding principle of interpretation is what those who passed the Constitution had in mind when they passed it. I think we have to decide how to apply it based on the knowledge and information we have today, not on the basis of the knowledge and information they had back then.

In our discussion about whether the constitutional prohibition against discrimination based on status applies to sexual orientation, John keeps asking whether those who voted to pass this part of the Constitution thought sexual orientation was a status and, thus, meant to include it. I keep saying that this is not the right question. I keep arguing that the question we need to ask is, given what we know today, do we think it is a status. The Constitution establishes the principle; we are responsibile for applying the principle to the circumstance as we understand it. The framers of the Constitution might well have established a principle that has deeper implications than they realized at the time.

I know no way to get past this difference of opinion, but I am glad that John is willing to discuss it, and I am thankful for all of the Methodist bloggers who are willing to explore our differing perspectives honestly and openly. May the church learn from you.


News Story on British Methodists Blessing Same-Sex Unions Was Misleading -- An E-interview with Jonathan Kerry

Locusts and Honey discovered a news story in The Guardian, a British newspaper, entitled "Methodist leaders vote to bless gay couples."

Then, the British Methodist Conference issued a statement suggesting that the news reports were not necessarily fully accurate. The statement said: "Some of the national and local newspapers which have reported on the Conference debate have interpreted this in a way which suggests that the Church has gone further than is actually the case. ... This is deeply regrettable and the Conference is assured that no statement or commitment has been made which goes beyond what the Conference has actually agreed."

The Rev. Jonathan Kerry, Conference Coordinating Secretary for Worship and Learning, oversaw the production of the report at issue. He serves as convener of the Pilgrimage of Faith Working Party which was established by the British Methodist Conference in 1993.

Rev. Kerry graciously agreed to respond to questions about the process that led up to the report and the report's actual contents. Here is the interview:

Rev. Kerry responded to my request for an e-interview by writing:

Thank you for your e-mail. A few introductory comments, then I will answer your specific questions. It is good to know that you are interested in the deliberations of our Church. However, the report in the Guardian was misleading.

I attach a copy of a press release which gives the actual position taken by the Conference. The statement issued yesterday by our General Secretary (which you quote above) was an attempt to clarify the matter.

The Conference agreed that guidance should be issued to assist ministers who may be approached by couples seeking a blessing service or similar. As yet we do not know what form that guidance will take, and it will be provisional until the Conference has the opportunity to consider it next year.

Now to the questions that you asked:

Congratulations. The Pilgrimage of Faith report you oversaw was obviously a serious process of dialogue on what, at least here in the United States, has been a difficult issue. Would you describe the topics addressed and the way dialogue was facilitated?

The aim of the report that we prepared for our 2005 Conference was to bring evidence of how the Methodist Church in Britain is responding to the call to "Begin a pilgrimage of faith to combat repression and discrimination" that had been issued by the 1993 Conference, following a long period of intense debate about human sexuality. In effect, we were "taking the temperature." We asked people to write or email to the working party with their answers to the following questions:

What do you understand by the phrase 'a pilgrimage of faith to combat repression and discrimination' in the context of the issues of human sexuality?

To what extent have the Methodist people embarked on such a pilgrimage since 1993 (please give your reasons)?

How do you see your own story (as an individual or a group) in the context of pilgrimage? How have things changed personally, in the church and in wider society since 1993?

What do you particularly want the working party to hear?

We also met a number of individuals and groups in person, covering a wide variety of beliefs and experiences.

A news story at www.methodist.org.uk/ quotes you as saying: "The challenge for us as a Church is to keep discussing the small number of areas where we disagree, while celebrating and drawing strength from the many areas where we do agree." Would you summarize the areas of agreement and disagreement?

We agree that all people, whatever their sexuality is God's gift, that all practices of sexuality, which are promiscuous, exploitative, or demeaning in any way are unacceptable forms of behaviour and contradict God's purpose for us all.

We agree that a person shall not be debarred from church on the grounds of sexual orientation in itself. We affirm the traditional teaching of the Church on human sexuality: namely, chastity for all outside marriage and fidelity within it. We recognise, affirm and celebrate the participation and ministry of lesbians and gay men in the church.

We do not agree over whether the statements just quoted mean that physical sexual activity between two people of the same sex is acceptable Christian conduct, even if that takes place within a long-term, exclusive, committed relationship. Hence we do not agree whether same-sex relationships may be acknowledged and celebrated/blessed within the life of the Church.

A Guardian news story has suggested that the Methodist Church approved blessing ceremonies for same sex couples. Is this accurate? What did the report actually say about same-sex blessings?

The Guardian report was misleading, particularly the headline. What the report actually says is that guidance should be published on how to respond to requests to conduct prayers or services of blessing for same-sex couples, particularly in the light of recent legislation on civil partnerships. This refers to recent United Kingdom (UK) legislation which means that, from December, 2005, it will be possible for same-sex couples to have legal recognition of their "civil partnership," and enjoy many of the same rights as heterosexual married couples.

Is there any prohibition against pastors conducting such blessings (as there is in the United Methodist Church) in The Methodist Church. Are they currently happening in Methodist churches? What do you expect will happen in this regard in the future?

We are aware that some blessing services do take place and that Methodist ministers and others officiate. However, these generally take place off church premises, and there is no national sanction for such services. The demand for such services is expected to increase in the future, and we believe it is important that there is a national policy which either prohibits such services or allows them under certain agreed circumstances.

Does the Methodist Church ordain openly gay and lesbian pastors? Are there congregations who would not welcome a gay or lesbian pastor?

We do have ministers who are openly gay and lesbian. However, they are expected to abide by the agreements on human sexuality quoted above. Some congregations are welcoming, others less so.

Why do you think this issue is so much more controversial in the United States than it seems to be in England?

This is hard to answer, but it probably has to do with the much greater influence of Christianity in public life in general in the United States than in Britain, and also the greater prominence of conservative believers.

However, not all churches, even in Britain, are able to deal with these issues without great controversy. We are glad that our own Church has found a way to disagree on important matters such as this whilst still remaining in fellowship with each other. We believe that this tension can be creative, not divisive.

What theological ideas or principles have most informed your discussion?

Principally, the present exercise has been experiential rather than theological. However, it is in the context of a careful enquiry into the meaning and application of Scripture and the tradition of the Church. We have identified the need for further theological work on the theological implications of being a Church that has to live or contend with different and mutually contradictory convictions.

What else should we know to understand the significance of The Pilgrimage of Faith?

That we are committed to continuing our journey together. To talk of "pilgrimage" is to envision a journey the exact nature of whose destination is unknown, yet one that is worth taking because of the company of other pilgrims whom we encounter along the way. Different people will travel at a different pace; sometimes events may affect the direction, at other times, personal choice may affect the direction.

Our thanks to Rev. Kerry for this thoughtful and helpful conversation.