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Pastor group pressures bishops on same-sex unions issue Sam Hodges, Sep 21, 2011
Bishop Larry Goodpaster
By Sam Hodges Managing Editor
A group of 59 United Methodist clergy, including from some of the denomination’s largest churches, wants the Council of Bishops to issue a statement promising to enforce church law against clergy who have pledged to conduct same-sex unions.
“The church needs you to lead,” the pastors wrote the bishops on Sept. 2. “We need you to act before the promised disobedience occurs. We need you to issue a public statement that you understand the proposed disobedience to be a grave threat to the unity and life of the UM Church and that you stand together in your commitment to defend and enforce the Book of Discipline.”
The group’s letter was triggered by the action this summer of about 900 UM clergy from various conferences who signed statements pledging to officiate at same-sex unions, despite language in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, prohibiting that.
Bishop Larry Goodpaster, president of the Council of Bishops, confirmed receiving the letter calling for enforcement, as well letters from other groups of laity and clergy.
“When the executive committee of the Council of Bishops meets prior to the fall meeting, we will review these and decide about any response that it might make or that might come from the full council,” he said.
The Council of Bishops meets in late October and early November at Lake Junaluska, N.C.
Bishop Goodpaster added, “We bishops clearly understand and act according to the Book of Discipline, Paragraph 47, Section Three, of the Constitution where we are charged with `carrying into effect the rules, regulations, and responsibilities prescribed and enjoined by the General Conference.’”
The 59 pastors also announced creation of a website, www.faithfulumc.com, where clergy and laity who support their position can add their names. By Sept. 21, the site listed 983 clergy and 2,300 laity as having signed.
Leaders of the effort include the Rev. Ed Robb III, pastor of 9,000-member The Woodlands UMC, in Woodlands, Texas.
“The United Methodist Church needs clear and prophetic leadership right now,” he said.
The Rev. Bruce Robbins, senior minister of Hennepin Avenue UMC in Minneapolis and former general secretary of the UMC’s General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, originated the movement of pastors pledging to conduct same-sex unions.
“For me the time finally came that I needed to do something that would demonstrate the depth of commitment I have to having the church be fully inclusive to all people,” he said.
Dr. Robbins said representatives of the Reconciling Ministries Network and Methodist Federation for Social Action met in late August, and he learned then that more than 1,000 UM clergy have pledged to officiate at same-sex unions.
Dr. Robbins acknowledged the Book of Discipline prohibits that. “At the same time,” he said, “there are statements in the Book of Discipline that promote inclusiveness in powerful ways. . . . In ministry we often find ourselves with conflicting covenants in our lives and we have to make some very hard decisions both personally and professionally.”
But the 59 pastors who wrote the bishops said Dr. Robbins and others are “encouraging and committed to massive acts of ecclesiastical disobedience, hoping that the United Methodist Church will not possess the resources or resolve to enforce the church’s position.”
The letter adds, “Honestly, we fear that many of our people will decide that if the United Methodist Church will not live by the covenant that holds us together, it will be time for them to find another church. The positive ministries of transformational discipleship that we are attempting to build are threatened by this group of defiant clergy.”
Those signing the letter include such mega-church pastors as the Rev. Jorge Acevedo, of Grace Church in Fort Myers, Fl., and the Rev. Mark Beeson, of Grace Community Church in Granger, Ind. Though many of the signers are from the generally more conservative Southern conferences, there are names from around the country.
The Book of Discipline describes the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” prohibits “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from serving as clergy, and says UMC clergy cannot officiate at same-sex weddings or other ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.
Efforts to change those positions have failed at General Conference, the quadrennial gathering of clergy and lay delegates that governs the church.
The Rev. Ken Werlein, pastor of Faithbridge UMC in Spring, Texas, and one of the leaders of the effort to press the bishops, said, “As we approach the 2012 General Conference, United Methodists in the pulpits and the pews need to hear that their leaders are in touch with the mainstream and grassroots of the church.”
Church trials for conducting same-sex unions have been rare. But in June, the Rev. Amy DeLong was convicted by a jury of her Wisconsin Conference peers of having conducted a holy union ceremony for a lesbian couple in 2009.
Her main punishment was a 20-day suspension from ministerial functions.
“If pastors performing such services are not dealt with quickly and with genuine consequences for their disobedience, our members will believe that the leadership of the church has failed them,” said the 59 pastors.
Dr. Robbins read the letter sent to the bishops and said he saw in it “a lack of compassion, and that saddens me.”
He said, “I value my covenant with other clergy across the connection, including the people listed on this letter. All of us find times in our lives when we have to choose between difficult options.”
Many states have statutory or constitutional language, or both, defining marriage as between a man and a woman; and state constitutional amendments to that effect have typically won big.
But recent polls have shown slight majority support nationwide for legalizing same-sex marriage, and New York recently became the sixth and largest state to make such marriages legal. Five states have legalized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
Earlier this year, 36 retired bishops called on the UMC to lift its ban on homosexual clergy.