Interview: Jim Winkler—A Moderate View on the Methodist Pastor Ruling

WASHINGTON – In a potentially far-reaching verdict, the top court of the United Methodist Church ruled last week that individual pastors have the authority to choose who can be a member of the local church.

The rulings involved the Rev. Ed Johnson, the senior pastor of South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church, who was placed on an involuntary leave by Virginia Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer for denying membership to an openly homosexual man.

Johnson allowed the man to attend worship services and take part in the church’s activities, but had not extended the rights to membership. The pastor was in the process of counseling the gay man before he was placed on the leave.

The two rulings overturned the Bishop’s decision and reinstated Johnson.

According to Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the denomination’s Board of Church and Society, the impact of the ruling stretches far beyond Johnson and his congregation.

“Given the present climate in the United Methodist Church, you would have to be blind to say this ruling has no impact,” Winkler said.

Winkler, whose board has tried unsuccessfully in the past to overturn the denomination’s current standards on homosexuality (the UMC considers the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible to the gospel and does not allow active homosexuals to serve as a minister), also said the ruling is biased in its singling out the sin of homosexuality.

“The United Methodist Church says two things are incompatible with Christian teachings: war and homosexuality. But I don’t hear anybody saying that people who started wars are ineligible,” said Winkler. “Nobody has said to President Bush that he is not allowed to be a Methodist because of the war.”

Rev. Johnson’s case was heard on Thursday, Oct. 27, and the rulings were handed down on Saturday.

The following is the full text of a Nov. 1 interview with Rev. Jim Winkler.

What are the implications of the two rulings?

I think the rulings are potentially very far reaching and disastrous for the United Methodist Church.

The way our denomination operates at present is that you don’t have to measure up to membership. Rather, it is through the grace of God that you qualify to be a member of the UMC – not by meeting the standards of the pastor in a local church. That’s an important distinction because really in this case, the pastor can exercise any standard he or she wishes.

For instance, if a pastor decides that blue-eyed people are not sincere, he or she can deny membership to them. It has the potential to set up each local church as a private club and it really turns the membership of the UMC completely upside down.

But doesn’t the decision apply because the UMC’s laws say the practice of homosexuality is a sin?

Those who profess Christ and who pledge to uphold the UMC with their services, givings, talents and time, and who pledge to do good and resist evil, are eligible to join the UMC. We have not disqualified people who are guilty of this or that sin.

We believe gambling is a menace to society, so if you go to Vegas, will you be kicked out of the church? We say war is incompatible to the teachings of Christ, but we have United Methodists who have started a war. Will they no longer be eligible for membership? There is also the instance of the rich man and the camel going through the eye of a needle. So where do you draw the line?

Frankly, I think it is purely a political ruling. The judicial division is similar to what is happening in the Supreme Court, and I think this is purely a simple abuse of power.

Some have said this ruling does not change anything in terms of the UMC’s disciplines and laws, and that it would not impact the local church.

Given the present climate in the United Methodist Church, you would have to be blind to say this ruling has no impact. Everyone is completely aware of what this decision is about. It is about denying membership to the gay and lesbian people in the United Methodist Church.

The Church has said for many years that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings, but the same discipline states that says we do not condone the practice also states that we will seek to live together in Christian communities. It says churches are not to reject nor condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. Therefore, the judicial council stands in complete opposition to the current disciplines.

As the head of the Global Board of Church and Society, what power – if any – do you have to change the ruling?

Zero. This is something that can only be dealt with by the General Conference.

What about the Council of Bishops?

They can ask, just as anybody can ask. But it won’t be settled until the General Conference.

So you believe the ruling does impact the local church?

Definitely. I think already there are United Methodists who have contacted their pastors to say they think someone is gay or lesbian, and that they should be removed from membership.

The United Methodist slogan is Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors. What is the difference between opening the door to membership and opening the door to the church through attendance?

Membership is the formal process of joining a church and pledging that you will support and uphold the church. There is a distinction between that and just attending the worship services.

People may say gay and lesbian persons are not eligible for membership but they can always attend, but honestly, who would want to go to a church where they where they tell you that you are not going to be allowed to join fully?

The United Methodist Church says two things are incompatible with Christian teachings: war and homosexuality. But I don’t hear anybody saying that people who started wars are ineligible. Nobody has said to President Bush that he is not allowed to be a Methodist because of the war. No one has said that to Methodists who are serving in the military.

That’s why this is ridiculous. It clearly is.

There was another case that same day about the lesbian pastor, Elizabeth Stroud. Is the ruling on Ed Johnson more far reaching than that of Stroud?

Yes, it is. It has a far more reaching impact. If we don’t address what the Judicial Council has done, we will be heading down the wrong road – we will be on the road down to the take-over of our denomination similar to that of the Southern Baptist Convention 30 years ago.