California United Methodists react to same-sex ruling

How can this be when it explicitly goes against The Book of Discipline? If we are held to one standard and not all then we will fall. A house divided against itself can never stand.


Jul. 9, 2008     

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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.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or


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