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3244California United Methodists react to same-sex ruling

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  • umcornet
    Jul 10, 2008
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      California United Methodists react to same-sex ruling
      Jul. 9, 2008
      NOTE: Corrected version, original sent July 8
      A UMNS Report
      By Marta W. Aldrich*

      On the heels of a California Supreme Court ruling that opened the door
      to same-gender unions, two United Methodist legislative bodies in
      California have approved gay-friendly statements that are stretching
      the denominational promise of "open hearts, open minds, open doors."

      The church's California-Pacific Annual Conference, convening June
      18-22 in Redlands, approved three measures that support same-gender
      couples entering into the marriage covenant. Each "encourages both
      congregations and pastors to welcome, embrace and provide spiritual
      nurture and pastoral care for these families," according to a June 27
      letter to the conference from Bishop Mary Ann Swenson and other
      conference leaders.

      That same week in Sacramento, the California-Nevada Annual Conference
      approved two measures on the same issue, including one that lists 67
      retired United Methodist clergy in northern California who have
      offered to conduct same-gender marriage ceremonies. The resolution
      commends the pastors' work in offering continued ministry.

      The statements are the strongest yet on the issue by California United
      Methodists and have drawn cheers from gay rights advocates, who say
      the church and its pastors should extend to same-sex couples the same
      level of support it provides heterosexual couples.

      Others say the conferences are on the verge of breaking a Scripturally
      based covenant with the rest of the 11.5 million-member worldwide
      denomination. The United Methodist Church, while affirming all people
      as persons "of sacred worth," considers the practice of homosexuality
      "incompatible with Christian teaching." Its policy book, called the
      Book of Discipline, prohibits its pastors and churches from conducting
      ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions.

      The denominational statements were affirmed last spring during split
      votes by General Conference, the church's top legislative body. The
      assembly, which met April 23-May 2, convenes every four years and
      represents United Methodists worldwide.

      That same month, California's high court overturned a voter-approved
      ban on same-sex marriage, making California and Massachusetts the only
      U.S. states to allow gay couples to marry. California began to issue
      licenses June 16.

      Pastoral choices

      The actions by United Methodist leaders in southern California reflect
      the struggle by pastors and churches to minister to same-sex couples
      in the wake of actions by both the General Conference and the state's
      high court, according to the Rev. Frank Wulf, pastor of United
      University Church, a United Methodist/Presbyterian congregation in Los
      Angeles.

      "This recognizes that our pastors and our churches are already
      struggling with these decisions," said Wulf, who helped to author the
      resolutions. "It's an attempt to honor the choices they make."

      One resolution reads in part: "While we recognize that we are governed
      by the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, we support
      those pastors who conscientiously respond to the needs of their
      parishes by celebrating same-gender marriages, and we envision
      compassion and understanding in any resulting disciplinary actions."

      The second resolution acknowledges the May 15 court decision, and the
      third opposes a November ballot initiative in California that would
      reverse the court ruling and amend the state constitution to bar gay
      marriage.

      In northern California, the California-Nevada Conference voted to
      support both the court ruling and the pastoral alternative offered by
      some retired clergy. "Some of our clergy will choose not to perform
      same-gender marriages, for various reasons, but would like to keep a
      continued ministry with families and loved ones of same-gender
      couples," the resolution states. "…Retired clergy in our conference
      are now available to perform the marriages as an aid to the
      congregation and pastor. …"

      Bishop Beverly Shamana, who presides over the conference, declined to
      comment on the action. Responding to an elder's call, she has sent a
      ruling to the denomination's top court on the question of how the
      conference can authorize and commend its clergy to conduct an act that
      might violate church law. The Judicial Council is expected to consider
      her ruling when it convenes in October.

      Ongoing conversation

      The latest developments in the California conferences trouble United
      Methodists who view such actions as a challenge to both Scriptural
      authority and the church's covenant through its Book of Discipline.
      They note that General Conference has repeatedly affirmed its stance
      on homosexuality and homosexual unions.

      "We've made it clear we adhere to biblical teaching and Christian
      tradition," said the Rev. Eddie Fox, director of evangelism for the
      World Methodist Council. "Ninety-eight percent of Christians around
      the world believe marriage is between one man and one woman, so we're
      not out of step in our ecumenical relationships with Christians around
      the world."

      At the most recent General Conference, Fox helped lead the effort to
      keep the church's stance on homosexuality intact. He argued that "God
      created the maleness and the femaleness" and that this "order of
      creation is, at the very heart, one of those essential doctrines for
      us in our church."

      "If we don't have a clear, consistent statement on this, it will
      result in confusion in our church," Fox said in a July 7 interview
      with UMNS. "These are the Social Principles for the whole church, not
      for one church." The Social Principles, contained in the Book of
      Discipline, detail the church's position on homosexuality and other
      social concerns.

      The Rev. Maxie Dunnam urged all pastors and churches to act on the
      church's definition of marriage instead of secular definitions. "The
      church is called to be prophetic in opposing that in the culture that
      is clearly out of step with what our United Methodist Church, the
      church universal and the Christian faith affirms," said Dunnam,
      chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.

      "I would hope that people would recognize the pain that their action
      will cause for the whole church, especially as we seek to be a global
      church."

      The Rev. John McFarland was among California-Pacific members who
      questioned the wisdom of the body's decisions and the processes being
      used to discern God's voice.

      "This topic is not being debated based on Scripture," said McFarland,
      pastor of Fountain Valley (Calif.) United Methodist Church. "It's
      being debated primarily on experience without regard to tradition,
      reason and Scripture." Scripture, tradition, experience and reason are
      the four themes cited by Methodism's founder, John Wesley, as
      illuminating the Christian faith.

      "Even though wonderful and caring people practice same-sex behavior,
      the discussion does not end there. What concerns me is how far we've
      gone from trusting the Bible as the Word of God," said McFarland. He
      noted that 2 Timothy 3:16 says "all Scripture is inspired by God and
      profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in
      righteousness."

      Interpretation vs. authority

      Proponents of conference actions suggest the issue is not biblical
      authority, but biblical interpretation.

      "It is our UM tradition to interpret Scripture with attention to its
      context and purpose," said the Rev. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett, pastor of
      Claremont (Calif.) United Methodist Church.

      "We create misunderstandings when we choose some texts to be
      understood as literal and others not," she said. "We once excluded
      women as clergy based on Scriptural authority; we once justified
      slave-holding based on Scripture. We're doing the same thing now with
      regard to homosexuality."

      Wulf said the church's unity does not necessarily lie in the unanimity
      of practice in all things. "We are fallible human beings, and our
      covenant is imperfect. We all know that because we get together every
      four years to adjust it," he said of the church's General Conference.

      "To those of us in the West who feel a calling to offer a different
      kind of message to same-sex couples, there is a sense in which the
      whole church wants to hem us in and prevent us from following that
      calling," Wulf said.

      "… We know the world is in flux, particularly on this issue," he said.
      "So we do this--not as an act of disrespect to the people of Africa or
      the people of (other parts of the United States)--but as a way of
      speaking the Christian Gospel compassionately to a group of people who
      deal with this every day."

      *Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.