Jason Victor Serinus
The issue of homophobia has again risen within the United Methodist Church. On April 18, the Reconciling Ministries Network, a 22-year old national grassroots organization dedicated to full participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the United Methodist Church, announced that 75 LGBT clergy have issued a letter decrying the exclusion of LGBT people from the life of the church. The signators include clergy from every jurisdiction in the UMC.
The initial signators, whose numbers were slowly increasing at press time, were well aware that revealing their identities might result in loss of ministerial credentials. Their names were thus entrusted to attorney Jennifer Soule, who swore via affidavit that the signators exist, and hidden from public view.
The letter was released exactly one week before the U.S. church’s nine-member Judicial Council, the UMC equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, was set to meet in Kansas City to continue to interpret church policy. At issue is the Judicial Council’s October 2005 ruling that allowed a pastor in the South Hill United Membership Church to deny church membership to an acknowledged gay man who wished to switch affiliation from another Christian denomination. Even though Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer and the church district superintendent declared that the pastor was required to admit the aspiring member, the Judicial Council reversed the Bishop Kammerer’s decision, allowing denial of church membership on the grounds of homosexuality.
On April 25 and the days following, Judicial Council members will take up two non-docket agenda items of reconsideration filed by Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer and the Virginia Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. Despite the schism and outrage their decision has caused among congregants and Bishops alike, the Judicial Council is not required to reconsider the issue. Should Judicial Council members choose to reconsider, they can either reconsider immediately, or place the matter on the fall 2006 docket of the Judicial Council.
Should the nine multi-racial, multi-national members of the Judicial Council – clergy and congregants elected by the UMC General Conference – think they can simply deny reconsideration to their homophobic ruling and brush the issue under the rug, lay and pastoral members of RMN, together with students from schools of theology in Denver and Kansas City and other seminarians, will support the April 18 letter from LGBT clergy by bearing Reconciling Witness April 25-27 in Kansas City’s Overland Park. A concurrent prayer network, instigated by RMN, will involve untold tens of thousands of members of Reconciling congregations across the United States.
Background to the letter
On Nov. 2, 2005, one day after RMN protested the Judicial Council’s decision to deny church membership to a gay man who was already singing in the church choir, the Council of Bishops unanimously adopted a letter decrying the Judicial Council’s exclusionary decision. The letter quoted from the UMC Book of Discipline, which states: “God’s grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.”
The Bishops also quoted from the Constitution of the United Methodist Church: “The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking the vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection.”
Affirming that “homosexuality is not a barrier” to membership, and that “pastors are accountable to the bishop, superintendent, and the clergy “on matters of ministry and membership,” the Council of Bishops basically told the Judicial Council that its decision was way off base.
The Judicial Council was well acquainted with the statements in the UMC Book of Discipline and Constitution that address lesbian and gay people in the UMC. On Oct. 27, the Judicial Council also heard the same statements when they considered the defrocking of “self-avowed” lesbian minister Beth Stroud. In that case as well, the Judicial Council upheld punitive action against a lesbian. Currently defrocked, Stroud continues to serve as a much-loved lay pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Pennsylvania, while raising a foster child with her life partner, Chris Paige.
The case against Stroud rested on her declaration to her congregation, made April 27, 2003 (three years to the day before the Judicial Council has the opportunity to revisit the issue of homosexuality), that she was a lesbian living in a loving, committed relationship. Stroud was initially charged with violating Paragraph 304.3 of the UMC’s 2000 Book of Discipline, which says: “Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” She was stripped of her ministerial credentials on Dec. 2, 2004.
In her final appeal before the Judicial Council, Stroud argued that the Methodist Constitution’s ban on homosexual clergy runs counter to other Methodist laws. She cited some the same statements in the Methodist Book of Discipline invoked by the Bishops in their letter of Nov. 2, including the declaration: “Inclusiveness means openness, acceptance and support that enable all persons to participate in the life of the church, the community and the world. Thus, inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination.”
The Book of Discipline also declares that homosexuals are “individuals of sacred worth,” “God’s grace is available to all,” and “certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons.”
Over and beyond issues of jurisdiction and legal interpretation lies the human issue. A Christian denomination with eight million members in the U.S. alone continues to grapple with the contradiction between Christ’s message of unconditional love and actions that condemn LGBT people. With other Christian denominations facing possible schisms over the issue, the eyes and hearts of Christians worldwide are open to what transpires in Kansas City this week.