UM Pastor Accepts Once-Rejected Gay Man as Member
- Pastor accepts once-rejected gay man as member
April 4, 2007
A UMNS Report By Linda Green*
The pastor of a Virginia United Methodist church has granted
membership to the gay man whose 2005 denial of membership by the
previous pastor prompted controversy across the denomination on the
issues of homosexuality and pastoral authority.
During worship services on March 11 at South Hill (Va.) United
Methodist Church, the Rev. Barry Burkholder accepted the man's
transfer of membership from a Baptist church to South Hill (Va.)
United Methodist Church.
The development follows a series of rulings related to the case,
including one on pastoral authority, by the denomination's highest
"The Judicial Council's ruling says that the pastor of the church is
the person in authority to determine whether an individual is ready to
receive the vows of membership," Burkholder told United Methodist News
"And having spoken with this individual and him having professed
Christ as his savior, his belief that Jesus Christ died for his sins
tells me that he is ready to receive the vows of membership."
The Rev. Edward H. Johnson had refused to receive the man into
membership in 2005, saying the man would neither repent nor seek to
live a lifestyle that does not include homosexuality.
The man has continued to worship at the South Hill Church and to
participate in its music ministry. Meanwhile, Johnson since has been
appointed pastor at Dahlgren (Va.) United Methodist Church.
Homosexuality and the church
Like many other Protestant denominations, The United Methodist Church
has struggled with the issue of homosexuality for more than 30 years.
In its Book of Discipline, the church declares the practice to be
"incompatible with Christian teaching." But while the church has
proscriptions against ordination of "practicing" homosexual clergy and
clergy conducting same-sex ceremonies in United Methodist churches, it
has no specific law about church membership and homosexual practice.
The Virginia case is among several to bring issues related to
homosexuality before the denomination's high court.
Johnson was placed on involuntary leave of absence in June 2005 by a
vote of fellow clergy of the Virginia Annual Conference after he
refused to receive the man into membership. Four months later, the
nine-member Judicial Council ruled that United Methodist pastors have
authority to decide who becomes a member of a local church and
Specifically, the Judicial Council ruled that "the pastor in charge of
a United Methodist church or charge is solely responsible for making
the determination of a person's readiness to receive the vows of
Burkholder said he based his decision to receive the man into
membership on the council's ruling, the criteria for membership found
in Paragraph 214 of the 2004 Book of Discipline and the invitation for
membership found in the Service of Word and Table 1 of the United
"Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly
repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. This
is my definition" (of membership), he said.
Following the close of the March 11 worship service, the man and two
others who transferred membership that day were greeted by most of the
church's members, according to Burkholder.
"A vast majority of the congregation came forward and warmly welcomed
all three of these people into the life of the church," said the
pastor, adding that he was "very gratified at seeing that."
Thoughts from the bishop
Burkholder said he made the decision to accept the man into membership
because "that is what I was charged with doing when I was ordained."
He said it is important to "understand that there has never been any
coercion, there has never been any suggestion on the part of the
bishop as to the action that I took here at the local church."
Bishop Charlene Kammerer, in an interview with United Methodist News
Service, said she was unaware of the latest development until
Burkholder contacted her afterward.
"So what this conveyed to me was that another United Methodist pastor
in the Virginia. Conference - through his own getting to know the man
and counseling with him spiritually and also with working with other
leaders in the church - felt very comfortable inviting him to join,"
The congregation's continuing struggle with the issue and its
spiritual discernment "helped the new pastor be clear in issuing the
invitation," she said.
The congregation and its pastor have taken a "very courageous step,"
she said. She added that she could not imagine what kind of courage it
has taken for the man "to continue to be an active participant as a
baptized Christian in this congregation where he had been clearly
rejected and set apart."
"I thank God for the ways that I believe that Christ is continuing to
work in his life," she said.
The Judicial Council ruling on the Virginia case was the subject of a
denominational consultation last February in Nashville, Tenn., where
pastors, bishops, theologians, seminary deans and denominational staff
gathered to discuss its implications. The consultation focused on the
nature, practice and integrity of the church's leadership.
While the ruling uncovered conflicts in church membership criteria,
ecclesiology and the authority given to pastors, church leaders expect
the issues will continue to be debated across United Methodism.
"What has happened here in the same congregation is that one pastor
made a decision and another pastor made a different decision,"
She singled out the South Hill church as a "local congregation who has
struggled mightily to understand the meaning of membership and what
really has happened to them and particularly to the man in this
The bishop said there are members of South Hill who disapprove of the
man's lifestyle and sexual orientation, but "these same members would
not exclude him from membership in The United Methodist Church based
on that reality alone."
She said it is her hope and prayer "that no United Methodist pastor
would use discretion to bar anyone from membership in The United
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@....
United Methodist News Service
Photos and stories also available at: