Clergy to discuss covenant, sexuality in October dialogues

The Rev. Greg Ellis awaits an answer during legislative debate at Annual Conference in May. Of 25 resolutions before the body six were referred to the Cabinet and will be discussed during clergy dialogues on covenant and sexuality with Bishop Peggy Johnson in October. To aid in the dialogues, to occur on all six districts, clergy at annual conference received and were asked to read the new book Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist Church. The referred resolutions may also be addressed in laity meetings with the bishop during her October Days on the Districts.    —Sabrina Daluisio photo

'May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?'   –John Wesley

It's important to build trust and respect for one another before entering into hard conversations, said the head of the appeals committee that ruled recently to restore the Rev. Frank Schaefer's credentials as a clergy member of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. Schaefer transferred his credentials to the California-Pacific Conference as of July 1. But the committee's deliberations that led to his reinstatement could be helpful when his former clergy colleagues dialogue with Bishop Peggy Johnson in October–not what was said in deliberations, which is not known verbatim, but how it was said.

“We spent a lot of time trying to understand each other, to know each other, as well as the matter before us," said Jen Ihlo, interviewed after the committee she presided over announced its decision on June 24. “How we held our conversations could be a model for the church. We ought to be able to have loving, respectful conversations about hard subjects and still part as friends.”

Ihlo, a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department, led the nine-member panel of the Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals that heard arguments for and against Schaefer's appeal on June 20 and ruled in his favor four days later. The former pastor of Zion UMC of Iona in Lebanon was found to have violated church law by conducting a private same-sex wedding ceremony for his son, Tim Schaefer, in 2007 at a Massachusetts restaurant.

The committee found errors in the jury's "compounded penalty" of both 30 days suspension and the surrender of Schaefer's credentials if he could not promise after his suspension to henceforth "uphold the denomination's Book of Discipline in its entirety." He refused to make that promise.

Appeals committee voids penalty, reinstates Schaefer

The panel, which denounced the mixing of two discrete penalties, also determined that the latter penalty was vague and erroneously predicated not on what Schaefer had done but on what he might or might not do in the future. Thus, they left the already-served 30-day suspension in force and voided the withdrawal of his ministerial credentials, ordering the conference to remit to him the lost salary and benefits that resulted from that judgment.

Ihlo spoke later to Erik Alsgaard of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, who covered the hearing for United Methodist News Service (UMNS).

She reported that the appeals committee, whose members held opposing views of the trial's charges, met in March with JustPeace, an agency that aids churches in resolving conflicts. It helped them "bond together," said Ihlo. "It helped us build trust and respect for each other. I really appreciate the way our committee worked and how seriously we took our task.”

EPA Conference clergy will share their various views when they dialogue in regional gatherings with Bishop Johnson about human sexuality and covenant during her annual Days on the Districts in October.

Fisher challenges appeals committee's ruling

The bishop, who sought to resolve the charges against Schaefer without a trial, turned the matter over to the Rev. Christopher Fisher, who served as Counsel for the Church, and to retired Bishop Alfred Gwinn, who agreed to serve as the trial judge. Fisher announced on July 17 that he would appeal the NEJ Appeals Committee's ruling to the church's Judicial Council, taking issue with the committee's process and conclusions. The Judicial Council will hear his appeal at its October session.

Six resolutions on the related topics of church trials for conducting same-gender weddings, accountability for honoring clergy covenantal vows and full participation of LGBT persons in all aspects of the church's ministry were brought to Annual Conference in May. After some debate a motion was passed to refer them to the Bishop's Cabinet to be addressed during the district meetings.

Of course, those gatherings won't have the appeals committee’s advantage of extensive discussion time aided by JustPeace. But perhaps the same values of trust and respect that Ihlo cited are still possible if the commitment to "holy conferencing" is upheld.

One other commitment may also help. All clergy participants are expected to read the new book they received at their Clergy Session just before Annual Conference: Finding Our Way: Love and Law in The United Methodist Church. The 115-page, aptly titled volume of probing essays authored by eight United Methodist bishops–active and retired–wrestles with the decades-long controversy of homosexuality and church law from various points of view.

Finding Our Way offers bishops' diverse views

Retired Bishop Rueben Job (left) and Neil Alexander (right),
president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House, initiated and edited the small but influential book, seeking diversity among the writers. Included are bishops from the U.S., Africa and Europe, addressing what is undeniably a global church concern.

Some authors agree with the church's official stance on homosexuality, that its practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching" and should not be sanctioned through officiating same-gender weddings nor through the ordination or appointment of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) clergy. Other authors call for long-sought changes in the Discipline that would remove what they consider to be antiquated, unfair, hypocritical and often damaging restrictions and rejection of sisters and brothers who are fellow members of the body of Christ.

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, MO, has offered a third way. He suggested that churches be allowed to decide on this matter individually; and there can be a variety of responses depending on the heart of the leadership, raising the question, “Does church unity require uniformity?”

While the church's General Conference has held firm every four years, the debate has intensified as more states and some countries legalize same-gender civil marriage and other rights of homosexual and transgender citizens. Meanwhile, some United Methodist clergy have defied the Discipline's same-gender matrimonial ban, and both sides have contended over whether expensive, painful, time-consuming church trials are warranted, even if other means of just resolution and compromise cannot be achieved.

"We plead for a quality and character of debate that is rooted in the saving grace of Jesus Christ…," Bishop Job and Neil Alexander told UMNS, "and that demonstrates that the people called Methodist choose to grapple with controversial issues in ways that edify and build up the body of Christ." They noted that United Methodist bishops' responsibility as servant leaders includes having "an enquiring mind and a commitment to the teaching office."

'I pray our church may emerge stronger'

Bishop Johnson, in her statement on the appeal decision and the "challenging judicial process," called for continuing prayers for the Schaefer family and for "the members and churches of our conference and our denomination, as we struggle gracefully to find common ground.

"I pray confidently that our church may emerge stronger," she continued, "more hopeful and more faithful to both its biblical grounding and its prophetic calling, as it continues to make disciples of Jesus Christ and equip them for God's transforming work in the world."

Yet, less confident voices that inevitably foresee or even call for a church schism are growing, and even Bishop Job and Neal Alexander admit that possibility is there. But none of the bishops writing in Finding Our Way agree.

Council of Bishops president Rosemary Wenner of Germany takes encouragement from John Wesley's poignant appeal in his sermon "The Catholic Spirit." It is an appeal with which even Jen Ihlo might agree: "Though we can't all think alike, may we not love alike?" Wesley implored.
"May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?"

 This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight.  I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ.  
 —Philippians 1:9-10, CEB

A news analysis by John W. Coleman, EPA Conference Director of Communications
Note: UMNS news stories written by Erik Alsgaard, Heather Hahn and Kathy Gilbert provided some source material for this analysis.