By Heather Hahn
The bishops of The United Methodist Church said in a statement addressing the denomination’s human sexuality debate that “our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church.”
The Council of Bishops issued the statement Nov. 7 after hours of closed-door discussions on the subject throughout their meeting this week.
They asked that United Methodists pray for their leaders and one another. They reiterated their consecration vows and a commitment to “be in ministry for and with all people.”
“As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church. We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow `to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church,’” the statement said.
The bishops wrote that they recognized the church exists in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality.
“Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people. We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate — to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another.”
The statement comes at a time when the denomination debate over human sexuality seems to have reached a fever pitch.
Concerns about unity
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has proclaimed all people are of sacred worth but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Debate over that teaching has surfaced at each subsequent General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body that meets every four years. But the debate has intensified in recent years as more states in the United States and more nations around the globe have legalized same-gender civil marriage.
Since 2011, more than 1,000 United Methodist clergy have announced their willingness to defy the prohibition against performing same-gender unions.
Earlier this year, a group of United Methodists who champion the church’s current stance on homosexuality suggested the church might consider an “amicable” split over the differences.
In the summer, those United Methodists met again. They stopped short of calling for a split. But in a statement titled Methodist Crossroads, the group said bishops must enforce and publicly support church law restrictions against same-sex marriage if the denomination is to hold together. More than 8,400 United Methodists have endorsed the statement as of Nov. 4.
Divisions among bishops
Bishops themselves openly acknowledge that they are divided on human sexuality teachings and how to interpret Scripture on the subject.
“Because we are divided, we are all struggling to see how we can actually help everybody in the church,” said Nigeria Area Bishop John Wesley Yohanna. “We are working to see how we can serve all people.”
Yohanna, during last year’s Council of Bishops meeting, preached that a problem with The United Methodist Church is that its love is overflowing, and like too much water, it is making a mess.
On Nov. 7, he said, he does endorse the calling that United Methodists are to be in ministry with all, including gay and lesbian individuals. But he noted that what that means differs among bishops.
Last year, retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert officiated at a ceremony at a United Church of Christ church in Birmingham, Alabama, that celebrated the union of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. At the request of active bishops, Talbert now faces a complaint in the Western Jurisdiction from which he retired.
Talbert told United Methodist News Service that he considered the bishops’ Nov. 7 statement “responsible.”
“I think it’s a positive, straightforward statement stating the reality of what’s going on,” he said.
Michigan Area Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey said an important part of the statement is the reminder “of our consecration vows” as bishops.
“It also reminds us that we want to focus on the mission of our church,” she said. “We don’t want to lose that in the midst of all these discussions.
Bishop Warner Brown Jr., during his first address as the Council of Bishops president earlier in the week, asked his fellow episcopal leaders to affirm the vows they took when they were consecrated as bishops. The bishops, including Talbert, stood in unison to show their assent.
Church has been here before
Brown, who also leads the San Francisco Area where Talbert once served, pointed out in his closing sermon that the Methodist movement has faced deep divisions before.
In recent history, those differences were especially apparent during the fight against U.S. racial segregation.
Brown noted that Alabama Gov. George Wallace — one of the most vocal of segregationists — was Methodist. But during his lifetime, he underwent a change of heart. United Methodist Bishop William W. Morris, who is African American, presided at Wallace’s funeral.
“How we go forward as a people remains to be seen,” Brown said. “But it is important that we understand that it is not about us.
“As different as our opinions will be and what we think is right or wrong, we are called to be a light that shines in the darkness around us. And a part of that light is the love with which we continue not to give up on another.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.