Amid heightened tensions over a controversial ruling that affirmed the rights of pastors to decide the eligibility of local church membership, bishops of the United Methodist Church released a statement that said homosexuality is not a barrier to joining the denomination.
"While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier," the bishops said in their pastoral letter to the people of the United Methodist Church.
The bishops were responding to a United Methodist Judicial Council ruling that supported the Rev. Ed Johnson, senior pastor of the South Hill Virginia United Methodist Church, who had been placed on leave by his bishop for not allowing a gay man to join his congregation.
Johnson had been counseling with the man about transferring membership from another denomination. While the man was allowed to join the church choir and take part in some activities, Johnson felt he was not ready to take up the vows of membership since he did not express a desire to change his lifestyle the UMCs Book of Discipline considers the practice of homosexuality to be unbiblical.
The Judicial Council decision, which upheld Johnsons action, drew mixed responses from United Methodists across the board. Conservatives generally praised it as a victory for denominational orthodoxy while liberals scorned it as discriminatory and hateful.
According to the United Methodist News Service, many pastors and lay people contacted their bishops to ask for clarification on the ruling. The bishops, who were attending their annual weeklong fall meeting at the Lake Junaluska retreat center in North Carolina, responded with a statement affirming both a pastors right to choose membership and homosexual persons right to become a member of the church.
"With the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, we affirm 'that God's grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community,'" the bishops said, quoting from the Social Principles in the Book of Discipline. "'We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.'
"We also affirm our Wesleyan practice that pastors are accountable to the bishop, superintendent and the clergy on matters of ministry and membership," the bishops said.
Regarding the role of the pastor in choosing members, Bishop Peter Weaver, president of the Council of Bishops and leader of the churchs New England Conference, said: The local pastor does have authority, but it's in the context of the theology and values of the United Methodist Church."
This theology includes the clause rejecting the practice of homosexuality as well as the clause affirming homosexual persons as people of sacred worth
During the oral hearings before the Judicial Council on Oct. 27, the Rev. Tom Thomas of Virginia, speaking for Johnson, argued that the pastor drew the line not at the homosexual person but at homosexual practice, according to UMNS. Johnson, who was at the hearing, did not address the court.
However, Virginia Bishop Charlene Kammerer, who had placed Johnson on leave, said such distinction amounts to second-class citizenship."
In that regard the bishops said all people should be eligible to attend the churchs worship services, receive the sacraments and be admitted as baptized members. They also cited the Constitutional declaration that upon taking the vows declaring the Christian faith, [anyone can] become professing members in any local church in the connection."
Ultimately, Weaver urged United Methodists to take this ruling as a chance to think carefully about the meaning of United Methodist membership and to think about how we are inclusive of persons who are in our communities and how we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
The bishops conference began Oct. 30 and ends today. They may discuss other possible responses to the ruling before the meeting closes. The Council of Bishops comprises the top clergy leaders in the nearly 11 million-member United Methodist Church. The council has 69 active bishops and about 100 retired bishops from the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines.