United Methodists Struggle Over Homosexuality, Pastoral Authority

In a ruling that critics say will have “disastrous” implications, the top court of the United Methodist Church decided that individual ministers do have the power to decide who becomes a member of the local church.

The United Methodist Judicial Council, at its regular fall meeting in Houston, Texas, on Oct. 26-29, issued two decisions related to the case of Rev. Ed Johnson – a Virginia pastor who was placed on an involuntary leave of absence for refusing membership to an openly gay man.

In the first decision, the council dealt with the problems in how Johnson was disciplined.

In the second, more sweeping ruling, the Council found that the denomination’s Book of Discipline “invests discretion in the pastor-in-charge to make determination of a person’s readiness to affirm the vows of membership” and that pastors are not mandated to accept all persons into membership “regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows.”

In both rulings, the Council sided with Johnson and immediately reinstated him to the status he held before he was placed on leave by Virginia bishop Charlene P. Kammerer.

Conservatives generally applauded the rulings, calling them victories for denominational orthodoxy.

“All of the decisions the judicial council made upheld the church’s official standards on marriage and sex and gave the church a clearer direction,” said Mark Tooley, director of the Methodist Action within the conservative Institute for Religion and Democracy.

Liberals meanwhile scorned the decisions.

“The ruling handed down by the Judicial Council today is chilling in its implications,” said Kathryn Johnson, executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. “Should this ruling stand, there will be no limits as to who might be refused membership.”

Saturday’s rulings mark the latest developments in what has become the thorniest issue facing modern day Christianity. Conservative and liberal factions within the United Methodist Church, like in most mainline protestant denominations, have been battling over the various “biblical interpretations” of homosexuality – conservatives say homosexuality is a sin that can be forgiven through repentance; liberals call it a natural lifestyle that cannot be changed.

Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors?

At the last UMC general assembly in 2004, delegates affirmed that the denomination condemns the homosexual lifestyle but accepts homosexual individuals as “persons of sacred worth” that should be welcomed into the church. The denomination’s motto, “open hearts, open minds, open doors,” also alludes to this inclusive philosophy.

The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, one of nine council members, referenced this theme in her dissent.

“[The decision] compromises the historic understanding that the church is open to all,” she wrote. “Nothing in the Discipline gives pastors discretion to exclude persons presenting themselves for membership in the church.”

Council members Beth Capen and Jon R. Gray also filed their intent to write dissenting opinions to the decision.

Politics at Play

According to Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the rulings are all about homosexuality and politics.

“Given the present climate in the United Methodist Church, everyone is completely aware of what this decision is about,” said Winkler, whose organization has tried unsuccessfully to change the denominational policies on homosexuality. “This decision is about denying membership to the gay and lesbian people in the UMC.”

However, according to Johnson, whose group has also attempted to change the denomination’s current policies, the issue “goes way beyond” the single topic of homosexuality.

“We are an organization that advocates for change in the disciplines around homosexuality,” said Johnson. “But that’s not the issue here. This is about changing the bedrock of our foundational tradition of opening membership to all.”

A Solid Decision

Judicial Council decisions are final, and can only be overturned at the denomination’s General Assembly – the highest legislative authority, which meets once every four years. In unusual cases, the Council may decide to change its writing.

Johnson said her group is urging the United Methodist Council of Bishops to appeal to the Judicial Council to reconsider its decision.

“My hope is that we won’t have a period of time where this ruling is implemented,” said Johnson. “If it is implemented, any local pastor can make the determination of who is not able to join the church, and that has never been our tradition.”

The Bishops, who are currently meeting at their semi-annual conference in North Carolina, are scheduled to release an official statement on the rulings soon.

Meanwhile, the Bishops’ spokesperson, Stephen Drachler, said he feels the rulings will not directly affect the local church in any immediate way.

“Everyone who is a member of the church remains a member of the church, and it doesn’t have a significant impact,” said Drachler. “It doesn’t change anything in the local church because local churches are still open to all those who profess their love in Jesus Christ.”

Tooley agreed.

“It is very unusual for a Methodist pastor to be reluctant to any church member that wants to join, so I would not be overly concerned that many people will be turned away,” said Tooley.