(Photo: Bill Campbell)
A United Methodist Church bishop has told her fellow church officials that even while debates over the acceptance of homosexuality may divide them, they ultimately "need each other."
Speaking before the UMC Council of Bishops in North Carolina on Monday, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of the Germany Episcopal Area stressed the importance of leading together.
"Because the church of Jesus Christ is composed of many diverse people, unity is not a static agreement, but a constant move, where we engage with one another in discerning God's will for all," said Wenner. "The world is too complex for one single individual or one single group in the church to respond to the challenges. We need each other to explore a path that leads to vital congregations engaged in mission."
Wenner also said before the bishops gathered at Lake Junaluska that even while engaging in a difference of opinion they are kept together through the Holy Spirit.
"It is the Holy Spirit that keeps us together. This is a stronger bond than any 'team spirit' that we might be able to instill," said Wenner. "By God's grace, in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, we will be able to make progress in acting as in ways that better reflect who we are as Christians. We Methodists know this is God's work and this is our effort."
John Lomperis, director of the United Methodist program at The Institute on Religion and Democracy, is attending the Council of Bishops meeting, that includes UMC clergy from across the world.
Lomperis told The Christian Post that he felt the Wenner speech lacked a specific solution for the growing problem of division.
"Like the other major speeches and sermons here so far, Bishop Wenner's speech noted the crisis of division facing the UMC while falling short of proposing a clear way forward, and urged unity without articulating a strong, substantial foundation for unity," said Lomperis. "Bishop Wenner lamented the lack of trust in our denomination, even between traditionally collegial fellow bishops. But if our bishops are serious about honestly facing the challenges facing the UMC, they need to admit that lack of trust is not the problem."
Debate Over Same-Sex Unions
As the UMC Council of Bishops continues their six-day meeting this week regarding a myriad of issues, controversies over the denomination's stance on homosexuality continue to play out nationally.
The UMC Book of Discipline, which forms the basis of church law for the denomination, prohibits clergy from officiating same-sex ceremonies.
"Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches," reads Paragraph 341.6.
However, some Methodist clergy, both retired and active, have opted to defy this rule under the belief that it is unjust and should be removed.
In late October, for example, San Francisco's former UMC Bishop and Civil Rights Movement veteran Melvin Talbert officiated a same-sex ceremony in Alabama.
Reconciling Ministries Network, a group dedicated to promoting acceptance of homosexuality in the UMC, commended Talbert for officiating the ceremony.
"It is about respecting LGBT persons in their full personhood-offering them all of the rights, responsibilities, sacraments, and ministries of the church. The UMC also calls on bishops to be present in the lives of the community to offer a prophetic witness," stated RMN.
Good News Magazine, a conservative UMC publication, was more critical and issued a statement demanding that Talbert be held accountable for his actions.
"A failure to hold accountable Bishop Talbert and other clergy who are flaunting our church's policies will result in the unraveling of our church's covenant and order," stated the publication.
Rev. Tom Lambrecht, Vice President & General Manager of Good News, told The Christian Post that he was glad Wenner mentioned the issues facing the UMC unity.
"I appreciate the fact that Bishop Wenner named some of the issues that divide our church," said Lambrecht, who is in attendance for the Council meeting. "However, the divisions go beyond disagreements over the church's moral teachings regarding human sexuality. This presenting issue points to deeper disagreements over the nature and authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the means of salvation, and other foundational issues."
Will Unity Remain?
As Wenner calls for unity among the divided clergy, observers have expressed doubts that schisms between liberals and conservatives may become reality.
Lomperis of the IRD told CP that he felt "the 'United' in our denomination's name is false advertising."
"A minority of radically liberal activist and allied bishops have eroded any basis for unity," said Lomperis, who nevertheless stressed that efforts to change the UMC's official position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage have failed and will continue to do so.
"Key votes on high-profile issues are trending in a more positive direction in the UMC, so that many of those who reject biblical authority are now openly despairing of ever changing the church's official, biblical teaching," said Lomperis.
Lambrecht of Good News told CP that as the result of the latest group of American UMC clergy disobeying church law, a schism akin to those experienced by other Protestant sects was possible.
"Given that the disagreements represent such deep-seated commitments for people on both sides, it will be very difficult for our church to avoid the separations that have beset other mainline denominations," said Lambrecht. "The recent spate of clergy disobeying church teaching and policy by performing same-sex services threatens our church' ability to remain together."
Various issues discussed among the UMC bishops gathered in North Carolina include the 2016 budget process, progress in the Imagine No Malaria Project, and elections for the positions of President, President-Designate, and Secretary.