Despite protests and criticisms from conservative Methodists across the nation, three United Methodist bishops will be speaking at a conference hosted by a group that advocates change in the denominations ban on ordaining gay priests and blessing same-sex unions.
Bishops Sally Dyck, Scott Jones and John Schol will participate in a panel discussion session tomorrow during the first convocation of Reconciling Ministries Network the largest unofficial United Methodist advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.
The Sept. 2-5 event had already been controversial because it is being held at Lake Junaluska, N.C., a United Methodist facility operated by the churchs conservative Southeastern Jurisdiction. However, the bishops participation fanned the fire of criticism from traditional and evangelical Methodists.
Bishops agree that they will uphold and support the policies and programs of the General Conference, explained James V. Heidinger II, president of Good News United Methodist. It is particularly egregious when you have bishops speaking and taking a stance contradicting the churchs position.
Bishop Dyck, leader of the Minnesota Area, will also attend a conference being held by the Confessing Movement a conservative group that opposes the ordination of homosexuals later this month.
She said bishops have the responsibility to do a new thing in response to the denominational conflict.
The prophet Jeremiah says, in a time of religious and political turmoil, that God is going to do a new thing, she said to the United Methodist News Service. Building bridges across divides of opinion, through conversation and listening, is a new thing, an alternate way to address division in our church. When there is this kind of animosity toward an event, it indicates we need to do a new thing, and that is the role of Episcopal leaders.
Bishop Jones, a keynote speaker at the Confessing Movement conference, said he is attending both conferences to foster the spirit of Christ.
Too many people draw hard and fast lines, demonizing those who disagree with them. That is not the spirit of Christ, Jones told UMNS. For me to attend both meetings doesnt mean I am in full agreement with either group, but reflects my recognition that both groups are composed of my sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church, and I care about them and want to be in dialogue with them.
However, traditional Methodists say bishops should do more than moderate conflict in the church.
The time is here when they need to do more than just listen, said Heidinger. They need to advocate the position of the church and to teach it and encourage the members of the church to abide by the scriptural norm.
Under United Methodist law, pastors are expected to refrain from any homosexual activity, and bishops are expected to discipline self-affirming homosexual ministers by taking away their ministerial credentials. The Book of Disciplines states that gays are people of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
According to Heidinger, bishops are allowed to have their personal views on any issue, but they are called to guard the teachings of the church and bring them into effect.
They are not elected to go contrary to the churchs teaching, he explained. They are to embody and implement the churchs teaching.
Patricia Miller, executive director of the Confessing Movement, agrees that bishops should protect things of the doctrine and be faithful to their vows.
If they are to uphold and speak on behalf of the doctrine and disciplines of the United Methodist Church while they are there, thats one thing, said Miller. But if they are speaking and joining in support of all forms of sexual conduct, Im disappointed.
The Bishops Plenary on Sept. 4 will begin with an address by retired Bishop Richard Wilke on the Jerusalem Council, recorded in Acts 15, and how it might serve as a model for Christian discernment and dialogue, according to UMNS. Afterward, bishops on the panel will respond to previously submitted questions around the 2008 General Conference theme, A Future with Hope. The panel will comprise bishops Dyck; Jones, who leads the churchs Kansas Area; Schol, Washington (D.C.) Area; Susan Morrison, Albany (N.Y.) Area; Melvin Talbert, retired, of Nashville, Tenn.; and Minerva Carcaño, Phoenix Area.
We will be asking these bishops questions about how we might see the United Methodist Church having a future hope, the Rev. Troy Plummer, executive director of Reconciling Ministries, told UMNS. How do the bishops see their role in these times of conflict, in finding a new way, and in being bridge builders?
However, Heidinger says the Bishops should be doing more than simply saying we have differing views.
Its not just leadership to say we want to be bridge builders, he explained. Thats not leadership.
And while Heidinger is glad the bishops are trying to relate to both sides, he says there is no moral equivalency between the two.
The confessing movement is fully supportive of the churchs doctrine and moral teachings. The Reconciling Ministries Network is totally opposed and its reason to exist is the opposition to the churchs stated position, Heidinger explained. We need to make sure we understand there is not a moral equivalency between the two groups, as if one is simply from the left and the other is from the right, as we so often do.
Bishops are called to serve for life. They are the highest ecclesiastical officers, and the shepherds of the church. So there is a real issue of integrity involved here.