33 Retired Bishops Urge End to Gay Clergy Ban
February 03, 2011
A UMNS Report
By Heather Hahn*
Thirty-three retired United Methodist bishops have released a statement calling on The United Methodist Church to remove its ban on homosexual clergy.
The bishops noted that the church has lifted other restrictions on clergy before.
"Our United Methodist Church, ashamed and repentant in the past, ended official and unofficial restrictions on candidacy, ordination and appointment for reason of race, gender and ethnicity," says the Statement of Counsel to the Church – 2011. "We believe the God we know in Jesus is leading us to issue this counsel and call – a call to transform our church life and our world."
Nearly 40 percent of the denomination's 85 retired bishops (including Bishop Beverly Shamana, who returned from the California-Nevada Annual Conference in 2008) have signed the statement, released Jan. 31. Most signers live and serve in the United States. But they also include two retired leaders from the denomination's Central Conferences – Bishops Joseph C. Humper of Sierra Leone and Franz W. Schäfer of Switzerland.
Retired Bishops Sharon Z. Rader (below) and Donald A. Ott (at left) said they felt led to circulate the statement to their fellow retirees after studying Advent texts that emphasized the need of people not to be afraid.
The statement is the result of a prayerful consideration of the Bible, the church's Wesleyan heritage, and the bishops' experience and "conviction of God's intention for a world transformed," the document says.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, for 39 years has stated that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."
The subject of homosexuality has surfaced every four years at the gathering of The United Methodist Church's General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body. Only General Conference can change the Book of Discipline, and delegates consistently have voted to keep the restriction.
"This statement tells of a widespread concern that episcopal leaders have," Ott said, "and I hope that the church and the world see this as an opportunity to once again (look at this) and maybe this time take the step of removing this. Once upon a time, it wasn't there, and it doesn't have to be there."
However, the denomination's current policy on ordination has many supporters in both church and lay leadership.
Florida Area Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker said he supports the denomination's basic position.
"It's in agreement with Scripture and ecumenical Christian tradition in the broadest sense," he said. "We have the Church – with a capital C – in many different cultural settings, and in those different cultural settings, there are different understandings of human sexuality. I think in making its decisions, the Church must be mindful of its responsibility to its members in all its cultural settings and not just select ones."
Retired Bishop Neil L. Irons (below, left), the executive secretary of the Council of Bishops, said this is the first time in his memory when this many retired bishops have released a public statement such as this.
"The significance of this is that these are all bishops who have abided by the law of the church since it was instituted in this particular matter," Irons said.
At the 1996 General Conference in Denver, 15 bishops signed a statement that advocated gays and lesbians be welcomed into ordained ministry. Irons said that, unlike the 2011 document, not every bishop who signed the 1996 statement was aware it would be made public.
Based on experience
Rader and Ott both stressed that the statement is based on their experience as church leaders.
For more than five years after her retirement, Rader was the bishop in residence at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. In that capacity, she said, she met with many seminary students who had the gifts and calling for ministry but were gay or lesbian.
"Those conversations were very convicting for me," Rader said.
The statement said that "laity and clergy, gay and straight, (are) withdrawing membership" and bishops are "being drained of energy" because of a stance that contradicts their convictions.
"I believe our mission to make disciples is in jeopardy by the current stance we have, and that's a driving force for me," Ott said. "When the church has a position that many people do not hold, and those people are in leadership or desire to be in leadership, they have to make compromises with their own integrity."
Bishop Whitaker said he might change the Book of Discipline's current wording to take less a tone of condemnation and emphasize the need for all clergy's celibacy in singleness.
But, he said, the change urged in the retired bishops' statement "would create a lot of problems in the life of the church."
Neither supporters nor opponents expect the debate on ordination or same-sex unions to end any time soon.
Council of Bishops Calls for Dialogue
Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, released a statement Feb. 3 calling for "thoughtful, prayerful dialogue about sensitive and challenging issues." His statement follows the Jan. 31 release of the document signed by 33 retired United Methodist bishops, which calls for the church to remove its ban on homosexual clergy.
The Council of Bishops remains committed to living within the covenant defined by the Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, and it understands "that it is the General Conference that re-examines that covenant every four years and has the responsibility to define our covenant for the next four years," Goodpaster said. He asks church members to pray and fast for the whole Church with the approach of General Conference in Tampa, Florida, in 2012.
Read full statement here.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.