A call by a group of retired bishops to end The United Methodist Church’s ban on homosexual clergy has prompted varied reactions from church leaders.
During the past month, some bishops have urged prayer and thoughtful discussion. Others have expressed disappointment in the retired leaders. Still others have voiced support for the change. In each case, bishops have stressed their commitment to uphold church law.
Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, released a statement in early February encouraging “thoughtful, prayerful dialogue about sensitive and challenging issues.”
“We call this holy conferencing,” Goodpaster wrote on behalf of the council’s executive committee. “We are committed to embody this in our own life as a council and lead the church in doing the same.”
Meanwhile, three more retired bishops have signed the Statement of Counsel to the Church (see February issue), bringing the total to 36 retired bishops asking the church to change its policy.
The three new signers are Bishops Daniel Arichea of the Philippines, Alfred Johnson of New Jersey and Richard B. Wilke of Kansas. About 42 percent of the denomination’s 85 retired bishops have signed the statement released Jan. 31.
The United Methodist Book of Disciple states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
The 36 retired bishops’ statement asks that this passage be removed.
Only General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, can change the Book of Discipline. The subject of homosexuality has surfaced every four years at General Conference, and delegates consistently have voted to keep the restriction.
The next such gathering is scheduled for April 24-May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Fla., and Goodpaster asks church members to pray for the whole church as General Conference approaches.
In the mean time, Goodpaster assured church members that the Council of Bishops remains “committed to living within the covenant defined by the Book of Discipline.”
Neither active nor retired bishops are allowed to vote at General Conference.
Still, it is “a serious matter” when a group of bishops communicates to the church disagreement with established doctrine, Bishops John Schol and James E. Swanson said in separate statements to their respective conferences.
Some active bishops expressed disappointment with the retired bishops’ public opposition to the Book of Discipline’s current rule.
“I think that it’s unfortunate that this group of bishops has stepped outside of the covenant relationship and find this the only way in which to voice their opinion about the issue of homosexuality,” Oklahoma Bishop Robert E. Hayes, Jr., said in an interview.
He said the statement steps outside the accepted process for changing church policy.
Bishop John Innis of Liberia agreed. He said he respects the retired bishops, but he must stand with the Book of Discipline.
“We are all created by God,” he said. “A person who practices homosexuality can be my friend, but I cannot condone that behavior.”
At this point, the Council of Bishops has not discussed the retired leaders’ proposal as a group.
Goodpaster, the council’s president, predicted in an interview that when the council meets in May, “there will be some conversation.”
Heather Hahn serves as a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Linda Bloom, serves as multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service, who also contributed to this article.
Bishops have stressed their commitment to uphold church law.