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Annual gathering ends with debate over membership, homosexuality

Annual gathering ends with debate over membership, homosexuality

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Annual gathering ends with debate over membership, homosexuality

June 9, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0501}

NOTE: This is one of a series of articles related to news from the “Witness With Power” 2006 Florida Annual Conference Event June 1-3 in Lakeland.

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND — The subject that constantly threatens to divide the church was front and center during the last hours of the “Witness With Power” 2006 Florida Annual Conference Event.

Delegates spent a significant amount of time debating several resolutions related to allowing church membership to homosexuals.

LAKELAND — The Rev. Ron McCreary, chairman of the resolutions committee, answers questions about procedures and substituting one resolution for another. Photo by Caryl Kelley, Photo #06-377.

The resolutions and subsequent discussion stemmed from Judicial Council Decision No. 1032. It affirmed pastors do have authority to approve or deny membership, addressing the case of the Rev. Edward Johnson, a United Methodist pastor in the Virginia Annual Conference who refused membership to an openly gay man attending his church. Johnson was placed on a yearlong involuntary leave of absence by his clergy peers, an action upheld by Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer, but a previous Judicial Council decision, No. 1031, effectively reinstated him.

The effect of those rulings has reverberated throughout many United Methodist conferences, including the Florida Conference.

One of the resolutions delegates considered called for the annual conference to issue a statement of support for a pastoral letter written by the denomination’s Council of Bishops (COB) in response to Judicial Council Decision No. 1032. The letter affirmed inclusiveness in church membership, stating “homosexuality is not a barrier.” A second resolution, titled “Integrity,” expressed gratitude to the Judicial Council for “affirming the crucial role of pastors in the reception of new members, advocating a lifestyle that is compatible with Christian teaching and maintaining the integrity of membership vows.” The third resolution asked for a petition from the Florida Conference to the General Conference to amend paragraph 214 of the Book of Discipline to include a sentence that prohibits the exclusion of individuals from membership based on their sexual orientation or “gender identity.”

During preliminary discussion Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker explained the rationale behind the bishops’ pastoral letter, saying the bishops decided to address the decision, in part, because they felt it was poorly written. They agreed pastors have authority to determine readiness for membership, but did not agree pastors have sole authority in the matter, as stated in the decision. Because pastors are under the supervision of district superintendents and a bishop, as well as accountable to other clergy, Whitaker said there are no issues about which pastors have sole authority.

In regard to the issue of whether or not practicing homosexuals are welcome for membership, Whitaker said the letter did not address that question or all the rules relating to membership. He said the bishops responded because they did not feel the church needed to be portrayed as a “graceless, legalistic, moralistic body.”

“We ought not to be a church that sends a message to the world that people are not welcome,” he said.

The Rev. William (Bill) Roughton, retired clergy, was one of six authors of the “Integrity” resolution. He said it was not meant to exclude people from participating in the church and affirmed the church should be welcoming “to all who want to turn to Christ.” Roughton said the church cannot condone individuals continuing to live in homosexual relationships, adding becoming a member of a church is not about a person’s past, but what that person plans to do with his or her future.

Roughton made a motion that the “Integrity” resolution be a substitute for the resolution supporting the bishops’ pastoral letter. The Committee on Resolutions allowed it, in part, as a way to help manage the process of voting on the resolutions. The committee was concerned about the possibility of approving competing resolutions if all three were presented.

Robert Grizzard, former chairman of the Committee on Resolutions, said the motion was out of order because the Committee on Resolutions did not have the discretion to bring forward only some of the resolutions properly before the body. Delegates also raised objections and questioned the committee’s authority to allow a substitution. That motion did not pass.

The Rev. Al McGowen, pastor of United Methodist Temple in Lakeland, made a motion to vote on the resolutions by secret ballot because of the divisiveness of the issue. That motion failed, as well as motions to table discussion on the three resolutions and delete a portion of the resolution supporting the bishops’ pastoral letter.

Amidst the discussion a delegate questioned homosexuality as a barrier to membership when current members aren’t questioned for neglecting the poor and membership isn’t denied to people who don’t care for the needy.

LAKELAND — The Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, director of the conference’s Connectional Ministries office, makes a motion to defer resolutions pertaining to church membership to the Conference Table so it can develop a process for discussing the issues at the next annual conference. Photo by Caryl Kelley, Photo #06-378.

The Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, director of the conference’s Connectional Ministries office, finally made a motion to defer the resolutions to the Conference Table, where participants would develop a process of Christian conferencing that can be implemented this year and used to discuss the issue of homosexuality and the church, the Judicial Council rulings and the Council of Bishops’ response to the Judicial Council.

“This is not true Christian conferencing,” she said as she spoke in support of the motion. “This is not the right context for this kind of conversation.”

The motion passed.

Burkholder said the motion was not intended to either ensure or prevent discussions regarding these particular issues at next year’s annual conference event. She also said it is hoped the process might be used in the future to discuss a variety of other difficult issues.

After the event, McGowen said he made the motion for a secret ballot because some individuals may have felt voting for any resolution other than one supporting the Council of Bishops’ letter could be construed as rejecting the authority of that body. He said once the motion was overwhelmingly voted down, he was fine with it.

McGowen said the real issue is not homosexuality, but pastoral authority.

“The water became so muddy with peripheral issues,” he said. “I’m so grateful to Anne (Burkholder) (for making a motion) to move it to a Conference Table.”

Roughton said he was sorry those in attendance got what he referred to as “bogged down” in side issues and didn’t vote on any resolutions. He said when the motion was made to table the subject it was voted down, so delegates were ready to vote — on something.

The core issue for Roughton, who spoke several times during the discussion, is the denomination’s stance on homosexuality stated in the Book of Discipline — that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. “Do we mean that or not,” he said.

In their pastoral letter, the bishops said homosexuality is not a barrier to membership in The United Methodist Church.

“With the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church, we affirm ‘that God’s grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community,’ ” the bishops said, quoting from the Social Principles. “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.

“We also affirm our Wesleyan practice that pastors are accountable to the bishop, superintendent and the clergy on matters of ministry and membership.”

Roughton said the wording in the pastoral letter was nebulous and unclear.

“I have a great respect for the bishops, including Bishop Whitaker, but I was disappointed with the letter,” he said. “I think it was written hurriedly, and it did not come out well.”

Roughton said he is not seeking a divided church. “Jesus prayed for unity, and we should seek it with all our hearts,” he said. “We want authentic unity.”


This article relates to Church Membership and the 2006 Florida Annual Conference Event.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.