Will Methodist Courts Embrace “Gay” Methodists?
by Mark Tooley
Thanks to the growing number of United Methodists in Africa, the great majority theologically orthodox, the 11-million-member United Methodist Church (with 8.2 million members in the United States) is increasingly steering in an orthodox direction on the ordination of homosexual pastors and same-sex unions. But the Methodist debate over homosexuality has surprisingly shifted from these issues to church membership, and the church’s direction on this matter is yet unclear, though the signs are hopeful.
Last fall, the denomination’s top court ruled for a Virginia pastor whose bishop had punished him for not giving immediate church membership to a sexually active homosexual man. The ruling from the Judicial Council received an ambiguous negative response from the Council of Bishops, widely taken to be critical, inflamed the passions of the church’s liberal wing, and prompted the bishop of Virginia to request reconsideration from the court, which it will do in April.
Almost forgotten amid the controversy over pastor Ed Johnson’s decision was the Judicial Council’s defrocking of openly lesbian minister Beth Stroud. In an open challenge to church law, Stroud had disclosed her sexual involvement with another woman to her Philadelphia congregation several years ago, while being filmed for a PBS documentary.
Early last year, Johnson was counseling an openly homosexual man who was cohabitating with his same-sex companion. The man had applied for membership in South Hill United Methodist Church, but Johnson thought additional counseling was necessary.
His associate pastor, not fully sharing his theology, passed word to Virginia’s Bishop Charlene Kammerer (whose conference covers all but southwest Virginia), who demanded that Johnson accept the man into immediate membership. Johnson refused, citing the United Methodist Church’s stance that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and that church members must “renounce spiritual forces of wickedness.”
In response, Kammerer placed Johnson on an unpaid leave of absence. Johnson appealed to the Judicial Council, which ruled in November that local pastors do in fact have discretion about who is ready for church membership. The council did not rule directly on homosexuality and church membership. Kammerer, though careful in her public comments as a prelate in the church’s relatively conservative southeast, is considered at least a quiet opponent of the church’s official teaching on homosexuality.
Over the last decade, the nine-member Judicial Council has become a key arena for the church’s debate about and enforcement of teachings about homosexuality. As virtually the only major entity whose members are elected directly by the church’s governing General Conference, which meets every four years, the Judicial Council is that rare church agency that is not reflexively liberal. Six of its nine members, including the two from outside the United States, are considered supporters of church teachings on homosexuality.
In the Johnson decision, the Court ruled five to three in favor of Johnson, with one member not present. The decision compelled Kammerer to restore Johnson to his pastorate, where most church members had supported him. He received his unpaid salary.
The ruling was an embarrassment to Kammerer and a challenge to traditional episcopal authority. The Council of Bishops, which was meeting at the time of the court decision, responded quickly by insisting that “while pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier.”
Quoting from the church’s constitution, the bishops declared, “All persons, without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible . . . upon baptism [to] be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking the vows declaring the Christian faith, [to] become professing members in any local church.”
They affirmed that pastors are “accountable” to the bishop and the wider church, although the council had not suggested otherwise. They did not deny that pastors have certain rights that bishops may not violate.
But they carefully omitted any reference to homosexual “practice,” which has been the key point of contention. Johnson was unwilling to countenance the homosexual man’s unrepentant practice of a behavior that the church declares to be at odds with Christian teaching. Had the man been celibate, or even had the homosexual man expressed a desire to become chaste, Johnson almost certainly would have accepted his membership.
Some liberal bishops were more directly critical of the Judicial Council. “I recognize that the church is not of one mind on the issue of homosexuality,” said Bishop John Scholl of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. “But I want you to know that the Council of Bishops is of one mind: Gay and lesbian people are not to be excluded from church membership.”
“I am concerned,” Scholl added, “that United Methodism is in danger of becoming as pharisaic as the religious leaders during the time of Jesus were.” He had testified in defense of Beth Stroud at an earlier trial, having been her senior pastor earlier in her career and affirming of her lesbianism.
Disapprove though it may, the Council of Bishops does not have the power to overturn the Judicial Council. The bishops, while individually powerful in their own jurisdictions, corporately have little power over the denomination. (They are elected every four years by their regional conference, which does not need confirmation from the General Conference, the denomination’s national body. The declining liberal conferences tend to have more bishops than their actual populations would suggest.)
The bishops are also deeply divided over homosexuality and over even deeper theological issues. The bishops were unable to respond when one of their number publicly rejected the eternal deity of Jesus Christ several years ago.
Probably half of the fifty American bishops disagree with the official United Methodist stance on homosexuality, and at least one-fifth do so publicly. (There are eighteen bishops from outside the United States: eleven from Africa, four from Europe, and three from the Philippines.)
Meanwhile, United Methodist seminary professors, church bureaucrats, and liberal caucus groups loudly denounced the council. The church’s communications agency contrasted its decision with its “open hearts, open minds, and open doors” advertising campaign.
The officers of United Methodist Communications misrepresented the decision. “We believe a recent Judicial Council interpretation of church law allowing a pastor to deny membership to a man because of his sexual orientation is contrary to the spirit of the teachings of the church, our history, and most importantly, the teachings of Jesus, who rejected no one,” they declared, inaccurately alleging that Johnson had withheld church membership because of the man’s “orientation” rather than his admitted practice.
The head of United Methodism’s lobby office in Washington, D.C., was even more critical of the Judicial Council. “Frankly, I think it is purely a political ruling,” said Jim Winkler of the General Board of Church and Society. “The judicial division is similar to what is happening in the Supreme Court, and I think this is purely a simple abuse of power.”
“Given the present climate in the United Methodist Church, you would have to be blind to say this ruling has no impact,” Winkler warned. “It is about denying membership to the gay and lesbian people in the United Methodist Church.”
Others on the liberal side of the church, and a few on the orthodox side, argued that United Methodism’s “historic” understanding of church membership was “inclusive” and automatically available to all who applied for it. Riley Case, speaking for the conservative Confessing Movement, argued in response that there is little in Wesleyan history to argue that church membership should be automatically open to all.
Methodist Books of Discipline in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Case pointed out, asked, “How shall we prevent improper persons from insinuating into the society [the church]?” The 1848 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church required that applicants for membership be examined by the minister in charge, before the Church, and “give satisfactory assurances both of the correctness of their faith, and their willingness to observe and keep the rules of the Church.”
Case found that Methodist churches historically had a high bar for church membership, and that pastors were expected to find signs in the applicants of conversion and holy living. The pastors made this determination, according to the old Methodist law books, with no reference to the power of the superintending bishop.
In the twentieth century, of course, Methodism, like other mainline denominations, became in practice more automatic in its acceptance of applicants for membership. But the formal church vows still insist that applicants “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of the world, and repent of their sin.”
Most United Methodist clergy are undoubtedly anxious to add new members to the rolls. But many still routinely discern whether applicants are ready for membership and quietly delay or withhold membership from those not spiritually ready because of grievous sin or unclear beliefs. The issue of church membership has never come before the church’s Judicial Council in such a high-profile way, until the all-consuming controversy over homosexuality propelled it to the fore.
The Judicial Council’s ruling in favor of an obscure Evangelical pastor and against the bishop of the denomination’s largest region shocked church officials. But it reflected the shift within America’s third-largest denomination away from oldline Protestant liberalism and increasingly towards orthodox global Christianity.
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