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A statement regarding "Hearts On Fire"

A statement regarding "Hearts On Fire"

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

A statement regarding "Hearts On Fire"

Aug. 17, 2005  News media contact: Tita Parham*  
800-282-8011   Orlando {0345}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

In September the Reconciling Ministries Network, a caucus of United Methodists who advocate a change in the position of The United Methodist Church on homosexuality, will hold a conference called "Hearts On Fire." Several caucuses and organizations have criticized the Lake Junaluska Assembly for agreeing to permit the conference to be held at Lake Junaluska. Some United Methodists in Florida have voiced their objection, as well.

Some are of the opinion that holding this event at a United Methodist conference center is in violation of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. The Discipline authorizes the General Council on Finance and Administration to ensure that "no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality." The Discipline does not prohibit a group from meeting on United Methodist property, but it does prohibit a group from being funded by the Church. "Hearts On Fire" is not the recipient of any Church funds. The General Council on Finance and Administration has published a memo prohibiting the reimbursement of expenses of Church officials who participate in "Hearts On Fire," including bishops.

Others simply object to Lake Junaluska Assembly permitting the conference to be held in its facilities. The officials of the Assembly decided to permit the meeting because it was a caucus of United Methodists. No Assembly funds are being used to support the conference. The Assembly is not hosting or endorsing the conference; it is permitting United Methodists to rent the facilities at their own expense.

Lake Junaluska Assembly could have refused to allow the group to meet at its facilities. The conference would have been held elsewhere, and no doubt the refusal by the Assembly would have become a topic of discussion throughout the Church and an opportunity by some to criticize Southern United Methodists for our inhospitality, homophobia and fear of dissent. In my opinion, this would have framed the debate in the Church around alleged cultural, rather than theological, disagreement. I support the decision by the Assembly, and I understand those who disagree with it.

The larger question is whether or not there is room within the Church for individuals or groups to express their disagreement with the Church's positions. Freedom to dissent has always been allowed in our Church. I myself have dissented on United Methodist property against aspects of our Church's position on abortion, calling for reform in accordance with the historic and global ecumenical Christian protest against abortion. I spoke in January at The United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C. The caucuses and organizations protesting Lake Junaluska's permission for the conference to be held in its facilities frequently express their dissent from the Church's position on many matters.

This episode is illustrative of how the controversy about how Christians should understand homosexuality is divisive in our Church and other mainline Protestant communions in America. This controversy will continue. The question is how we shall deal with it.

I believe that the Church has to provide a forum for debate and the expressions of points of view on controversial issues. Because we believe in a God who works by persuasion rather than coercion to bring us to an understanding of the truth of divine revelation, God's church must be a community in which members listen to one another and expect nothing less than a discernment of the illumination of the Holy Spirit in the context of mutual accountability to the covenant we make with one another under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

We must also remember that the Christian life in the church involves more than reflection upon, and resolution of, "issues." A preoccupation with issues, which are matters of dispute, may obscure the broader range of matters of doctrine and discipline where there is agreement among Christians. More importantly, the Christian life is a way of living in communion with God and one another toward greater union with God and love toward each other. In the context of Christian relationships there is room for listening to one another with genuine respect even when we have theologically important and emotional disagreements. One of John Wesley's favorite spiritual writers was the Syrian of the Fourth century known as Macarius; Wesley published several of Macarius' homilies in "The Christian Library" to be read by the Methodists. In Homily 8 Marcarius describes his own experience of grace: "It quiets all my parts and my heart so that the soul with greatest joy seems to be a guileless child. No longer am I a man that condemns Greek or Jew or sinner or worldling. Truly the interior man looks on all human beings with pure eyes and finds joy in the whole world. He really wishes to reverence and love all Greeks and Jews." Wesley affirmed Macarius' vision that the Christian life is about our interior life and relationships, as well as about ideas.

On the basis of the historic and transcultural ecumenical Christian tradition of the interpretation of Scripture, I support our Church's position on homosexuality. I also advocate for the fair treatment of homosexual persons in civil society. I believe the Church should include in its fellowship and ministry homosexual persons because the Church views all human beings as those created in the image of God for whom Christ died and was raised so that we may all be transformed into the likeness of Christ.

I pray that all churches will seek the illumination of the Holy Spirit and engage in a deeper theological discussion of homosexuality in a spirit of mutual respect and love for one another.


This article relates to Christian Relationships.

*Parham managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.