More clergy offer to bless same-sex unionsLatest News Tuesday, July 19th, 2011
By Heather Hahn
During annual conference season, hundreds of United Methodist clergy around the United States expressed their willingness to defy the denomination’s ban on officiating at same-sex unions.
Organizers say at least 900 active and retired United Methodist clergy have signed on to blessing such unions. That’s about 2 percent out of the nearly 44,400 United Methodist clergy in the United States. However, the raw numbers do not convey the full scope of support in some conferences. In Northern Illinois, for example, nearly a third of the conference’s clergy — 212 of 696 — signed the statement.
Longtime church observers say the number of clergy who indicate they are willing to bless same-sex unions regardless of church law is a new turn in what has been a longstanding church debate.
The topic of homosexuality routinely surfaces at annual conference sessions the year before General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body. Since 1972, delegates to the gathering consistently have voted to keep the language identifying the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The public stand by the clergy this year came first in the Minnesota Annual (regional) Conference, where 70 clergy signed a statement saying they would “offer the grace of the Church’s blessing to any prepared couple desiring Christian marriage,” including same-sex couples.
Similar statements were signed by clergy in at least four other conferences including the New England, Northern Illinois, Oregon-Idaho and Tennessee conferences.
The unofficial caucus Methodists in New Directions is gathering signatures in the New York Conference for “A Covenant of Conscience” that declares signers will make marriage available “on an equal basis.” That effort has gathered signatures from 150 clergy and 619 lay people so far and is continuing until the group’s marriage initiative officially launches Oct. 17.
“Signed statements like what happened in Minnesota do seem to be a departure from bringing in resolutions seeking change or resolutions urging that everything stay the same,” said the Rev. Robert J. Williams, the chief executive at the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.
He pointed out that the clergy are saying they will participate in the church version of civil disobedience, or as he called it, “ecclesiastical disobedience.”
What church law says
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, states: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”
The signers believe the statements take a stand against discrimination and extend ministry to all. To many others, the statements flout church teaching and the clergy’s ordination vows.
The Rev. Gregory Gross, who helped lead the signing effort in Northern Illinois, said the signers are serving “a higher calling and covenant that we make with our God.”
“We are saying as clergy that we are honoring our ordination vows to be in ministry with all in our congregations,” said Gross, a deacon who manages the HIV-testing and prevention program at a community center in Chicago.
The Rev. John Miles II disagrees. Miles, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Jonesboro, Ark., advocates maintaining the church’s stand.
“If we’re going to be in a connectional system, we have to obey the rules of that system,” Miles said. “If you don’t want to follow the church policy, perhaps you should consider ministering in another denomination.”
Both Gross and Miles will be first-time delegates at General Conference, which will next meet April 24-May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Fla.
No one knows what impact the statements will have on next year’s gathering or the church’s long debate over homosexuality.
Petitions and beyond
At least 13 conferences in the United States approved resolutions petitioning General Conference to change the language in church law related to homosexuality. Similar petitions failed to gain support in at least three conferences — Arkansas, Nebraska and Virginia.
Many conferences did not address the issue. The United Methodist Church has 59 annual conferences in the United States and 71 outside the country.
The Rev. April Hall Cutting, one of the pastors who collected signatures in the Oregon-Idaho conference, thinks the statements will help make a difference as the church heads toward General Conference.
“I personally believe things won’t change unless there are significant numbers of people voicing the protest,” said Hall Cutting, pastor of Sweet Home (Ore.) United Methodist Church.
“Ordained clergy vow accountability to the laws of the church and are bound by that vow.”–Bishop Hee-Soo Jung
Officiating at same-sex unions is a chargeable offense under the Book of Discipline. Clergy convicted in a church court can face a loss of clergy credentials or lesser penalties.
However, church law does not censure those who disagree with church teaching on this matter — only those who actually take actions that violate church law.
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, who leads the Northern Illinois conference, said that the clergy who signed their intent to perform civil unions would find themselves in trouble only if they do the deed.
“Ordained clergy vow accountability to the laws of the church and are bound by that vow,” Jung said in a statement.
The Book of Discipline gives juries in church trials a great deal of discretion in determining penalties. For example, the Rev. Amy DeLong — convicted in June for performing a same-sex union — is undergoing a 20-day suspension and a yearlong process to “restore the broken clergy covenant relationship.”
In the Northern Illinois and Oregon-Idaho conferences, clergy approved nonbinding resolutions that recommend a maximum penalty of 24-hour suspension for clergy convicted of performing same-sex unions.
The Rev. Brian Shimer, pastor of Westside United Methodist Church in Beaverton, Ore., was among the minority of Oregon-Idaho clergy who disagreed with that recommendation.
“If they believe (performing same-sex unions) is prophetic, then they can take the consequences for their prophecy,” Shimer said. “I think the idea of a 24-hour suspension is a mockery of the disciplinary language, and it’s a mockery of who we are as a church.”
Shimer said he worries that church leaders are following the culture instead of trying to shift the culture’s direction.
Impact of state laws
United Methodist clergy have publicly expressed their willingness to break church law before, though never on this scale.
As recently as 2008, the California-Nevada Conference approved a measure listing 67 retired United Methodist clergy in northern California who offered to conduct same-gender marriage ceremonies.That year, the California Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Voters later overturned that decision with Proposition 8, which now is facing challenges in the federal appeals court.
Not one of the 67 has faced a formal complaint that they officiated at a same-sex union, said Cate Monaghan, the spokeswoman for the California-Nevada Conference.
The church debate over homosexuality is likely to become more widespread as more states offer legal recognition of same-sex unions. Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, an additional 10 states offer civil unions or domestic partnerships with at least some state-level spousal rights.
Months before annual conference, Gross of Northern Illinois said he and fellow clergy discussed what they would do when Illinois legalized civil unions on June 1.
Some suggested sending gay and lesbian church members seeking holy unions to an Episcopal priest or a United Church of Christ pastor. Those denominations permit such ceremonies.
“We feel that’s not authentic ministry: How can we send members to other churches when they are United Methodist at heart?“ Gross said. “We feel this is also evangelism, reaching out to people who have not been churched or who have left the church.”
Williams, the church historian, said tension between state and church law is nothing new. “For many, many years, clergy weren’t allowed to smoke or drink, and actually up until 1968, they had to sign pledges that they wouldn’t do it,” he said. “If someone is going to have integrity in the system, you don’t do it.”
Change seen as unlikely
Even some individuals who would like the church policy to change know they face stiff opposition at the 2012 General Conference.
The denomination is growing in Africa and the Philippines. It also remains strong in the U.S. Southeast. Most delegates from those geographic areas traditionally have sought to maintain the church’s current policy.
The Rev. Rebekah Miles, an ethics professor at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, will be part of Arkansas’ General Conference delegation for a third time. She and her brother and fellow delegate, the Rev. John Miles II, disagree on the Book of Discipline’s language regarding homosexuality. However, they both agree it is unlikely to change any time soon.
“With the demographics of the church,” she said, “the votes simply are not there.”
Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Form more information visit www.umc.org.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.