Bishop Peggy Johnson: Loving Alike with One Heart

John Wesley the founder of the Methodist movement once said “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without a doubt, we may!”
     That is my prayer as we hear today’s ruling of the United States Supreme Court that struck down state laws barring same-gender couples from enjoying marriage on the same terms given to couples of the opposite sex. Included in the statement from the Supreme Court were these words: “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.”
     The justices also stated, “It must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered."
     The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church has not changed with this ruling from the Supreme Court. Only the General Conference of the UMC can change our rules and policies; and General Conference will not meet again until May of 2016 in Portland, Oregon. At that time there will likely be many petitions appealing for same-gender marriages to be permitted for churches and pastors who feel called to engage in this kind of ministry.    

Unity of the church is in question
The denomination's coordinating body, The Connectional Table, has voted to put forth a petition for consideration known as “A Third Way.” This measure would allow UM Clergy to perform ceremonies that celebrate same-gender unions if they wish, and clergy who do not wish to perform such ceremonies would not be required to do so. This proposal also removes being a practicing homosexual or performing same-gender wedding ceremonies from the list of chargeable offenses for United Methodist clergy. (See proposal below.)    
     There are others who wish to keep the Discipline as it is written and who call for stronger accountability for those who break the current church rules about homosexuality and same-gender weddings. One such petition came my way just this week from the Mississippi Annual Conference.
Ministry with people in the LGBTQ community is affirmed in our current Book of Discipline, and for some today’s Supreme Court ruling favoring equality in marriage is a cause for great rejoicing. Other parts of the Discipline do not condone homosexuality and same-gender marriages, and for these people this a cause for concern and disappointment.
     The unity of the church is in question around this issue. It strikes at the heart of many things that we value as United Methodists: primacy of Scripture, tradition, holiness, diversity, social justice, and human rights.

'Both holiness and hospitality are excellent values'
In his sermon at the 2008 General Conference Bishop Hee-Soo Jung spoke of this tension in our church today: “One could argue that those who espouse greater openness are holding fast to biblical principles of hospitality. Those who desire clarity in matters of boundaries, however are adhering to biblical principles of holiness. Both holiness and hospitality are excellent values. Both are biblical and both are right. Of course, they can also both be wrong. The problem is this: When we concern ourselves only with holiness, we become rigid and inward looking. We make an idol of our purity. When we concern ourselves only with hospitality, however, we lose our sense of who we are. We become so open to others that we lose the language of our own faith.” (Celebrating God’s Love: Living into Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, edited by Donald E. Messer, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015, p. 39)
     It is my prayer that we as a United Methodist Church will stay unified in the one heart of Christ that is our core mission and mandate. The mission of the church we can agree on, as Wesley suggests, even if we are not of the same opinion around other issues.
     It is also my prayer that the 2016 General Conference can look seriously at the “Third Way” proposed by the Connectional Table as a means of continuing our main mission with added flexibility so that more people can receive the ministry of the church and more people can be empowered for ministry. To do this would mean that, even while thinking differently, we strive greatly to “love alike,” uniting our hearts in prayer and conversation, and humbly listening to one another.
     I believe we can become stronger and stay unified in the midst of this crucial time in the life of the church. Please pray with me and remain tender-hearted toward one another. Wesley says we can do this “without a doubt.” 

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
Philadelphia Episcopal Area

The United Methodist Church

A Third Way
PROPOSAL III-A THIRD WAY-(Draft legislation has been prepared for this approach).

Remove all prohibitive language from The United Methodist Book of Discipline, but with only minor changes to the existing Social Principles in anticipation of the finalizing of a global Social Principles which may come in 2020, while affirming the existing Disciplinary warrant about who clergy perform weddings for and while affirming the existing constitutional warrant for annual conferences to make decisions about ordination.

BOD: Minor changes to the Social Principles, 161.B and 161.F. Amendments to 304.3,310.2.d, 341.6, 426, and2702.

Impact: Would make minor changes to the Social Principles in anticipation of a global Social Principles. These changes would note, for instance, that historically The United Methodist Church has not condoned the practice of homosexuality.
     In terms of same-sex marriage, this approach would allow the exercise of conscience amongst clergy. Given the current disciplinary warrant (cf. BOD ¶340.2a, 3a) for clergy to determine whom they perform weddings for, clergy who choose to could perform same-sex weddings. Clergy who do not choose to would not be required to perform same-sex weddings.
     Annual conferences, as is already their constitutional warrant (cf. ¶33 of the Constitution), would continue to determine matters of ordination, including whether or not to ordain LGBTQ persons. Bishops would determine where to appoint based on the existing consultative process outlined in the BOD. This option also would remove the practice of homosexuality or the performance of same-sex ceremonies from the categories of chargeable offenses. It would leave the funding restrictions intact.

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