United Methodist Bishops Affirm Church Membership Open to All
- From United Methodist News Service
United Methodist Bishops Affirm Church Membership Open to All
Nov. 3, 2005
By Tim Tanton*
LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS) - Homosexuality is not a barrier to
membership in the United Methodist Church, the denomination's bishops
said Nov. 2, two days after the church's top court supported a
pastor's refusal to allow a gay man to join.
"While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for
membership, homosexuality is not a barrier," the bishops said in their
pastoral letter to the people of the United Methodist Church.
In a ruling announced Oct. 31, the Judicial Council supported the Rev.
Ed Johnson of South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church in his decision
not to allow a gay man to join his congregation. The man was a choir
member and had been meeting with Johnson about transferring membership
from another denomination.
Johnson was placed on a yearlong involuntary leave of absence by
fellow pastors during the clergy session of the Virginia Annual
(regional) Conference last June. The Judicial Council upheld Johnson's
action, citing the authority given to clergy by the church's Book of
Discipline. The court ordered that the pastor be reinstated to his
The ripple effect of the court's decision was felt immediately in Lake
Junaluska, where the Council of Bishops is holding its weeklong fall
meeting. The council spent at least four hours in closed session
working on a statement responding to the ruling.
"With the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, we affirm
'that God's grace is available to all, and we will seek to live
together in Christian community,'" the bishops said, quoting from the
Social Principles in the Book of Discipline. "'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.'
"We also affirm our Wesleyan practice that pastors are accountable to
the bishop, superintendent and the clergy on matters of ministry and
membership," the bishops said.
The Council of Bishops unanimously adopted the pastoral letter in
The announcement of the court's ruling caused "considerable
conversation within the council," said Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, who
led the seven-bishop writing team that worked on the statement. Huie
oversees the church's Texas Annual (regional) Conference.
Many of the bishops had received calls and e-mail from pastors and lay
people in their conferences who were "greatly troubled" by the ruling
and were asking for clarification, she told United Methodist News Service.
"We wanted our response to be thoughtful, prayerful and to speak to
the church," she said.
As the bishops worked on the statement, it became clear that there was
unity within the council regarding the membership of gays in the
United Methodist Church, she said. "I don't think it's going too far
to say the council is of one mind that gay and lesbian people can be
members of the United Methodist Church."
The Book of Discipline affirms homosexuals as people "of sacred
worth." It also holds the practice of homosexuality incompatible with
Christian teaching, and it bars the performance of same-sex unions by
the church's clergy and in the church's sanctuaries.
During oral hearings before the Judicial Council Oct. 27, the Rev. Tom
Thomas of Virginia, speaking for Johnson, argued that the pastor "drew
the line not at the homosexual person but at homosexual practice."
Johnson, who was at the hearing, did not address the court.
Virginia Bishop Charlene Kammerer defended the suspension of Johnson,
stating that the Constitution emphasizes inclusiveness and not
exclusiveness, and that only allowing participation in the church
"amounts to second-class citizenship."
In their pastoral letter, the bishops said they "uphold and affirm"
that the church's top legislative body, the General Conference, "has
clearly spoken through the denomination's Constitution on
inclusiveness and justice for all as it relates to church membership."
The bishops cited the Constitution's declaration that all people shall
be eligible to attend the church's worship services, participate in
its programs, receive the sacraments, be admitted as baptized members,
"and upon taking the vows declaring the Christian faith, become
professing members in any local church in the connection."
"The invitation that this (Judicial Council) ruling gives to all of us
is to think carefully about the meaning of United Methodist
membership," said Bishop Peter Weaver, president of the council and
leader of the church's New England Conference.
The ruling provides an opportunity "to think about how we are
inclusive of persons who are in our communities and how we make
disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," he
said. Making disciples is a theme of the bishops' fall meeting and
their focus for 2005-08. Weaver noted that earlier on Nov. 2, the
council had heard a major presentation on evangelism by a Duke
Divinity School theologian.
Regarding a pastor's authority to make decisions about membership,
Weaver said: "The local pastor does have authority, but it's in the
context of the theology and values of the United Methodist Church."
The bishops will discuss other possible responses to the ruling as
their meeting continues, he said. The meeting, which began Oct. 30,
ends Nov. 4.
Weaver is already responding in his own New England Conference by
setting up four regional opportunities for Christian conversation
about the Judicial Council ruling.
The Council of Bishops comprises the top clergy leaders in the nearly
11 million-member United Methodist Church. The council has 69 active
bishops and about 100 retired bishops from the United States, Africa,
Europe and the Philippines.
*Tanton is managing editor for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or
The full text of the letter follows.
A Pastoral Letter to the People of The United Methodist Church
From the Council of Bishops
By grace you have been saved through faith.
Grace to you from Jesus Christ who calls his church to welcome all
people into the community of faith as it proclaims the Gospel.
The Judicial Council, our denomination's highest judicial authority,
recently issued a decision regarding a pastor's refusing a gay man's
request for membership in the church. In the case, this man was
invited to join the choir at the United Methodist Church in the
community. As he became more active in the choir and the church, he
asked to transfer his membership from another denomination to The
United Methodist Church. Because he is a practicing homosexual, the
pastor refused to receive him into church membership. The Judicial
Council upheld the pastor's refusal of membership.
While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for
membership, homosexuality is not a barrier. With the Social Principles
of The United Methodist Church we affirm: "that 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." (Para. 161g, 2004 Book of
Discipline of The United Methodist Church)
We also affirm our Wesleyan practice that pastors are accountable to
the bishop, superintendent, and the clergy on matters of ministry and
The United Methodist Church is committed to making disciples of Jesus
Christ with all people. We, the bishops of the Church, uphold and
affirm that the General Conference has clearly spoken through the
denomination's Constitution on inclusiveness and justice for all as it
relates to church membership:
"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." (Article IV, Constitution of The United
We believe the ministry of the local church, under the guidance of the
Holy Spirit, is to help people accept and confess Jesus Christ as Lord
and Savior. We call upon all United Methodist pastors and laity to
make every congregation a community of hospitality.
Nov. 2, 2005
Lake Junaluska, N.C.