United Methodist Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, retired, speaks during the Memorial Communion at the 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference in San Diego, California.
By Patrick Scriven | Photos by Patrick Scriven
As delegations prepared themselves for jurisdictional conference, many people anticipated that the Western Jurisdiction would respond in some way to the reluctance of the General Conference to acknowledge the diversity of opinion that exists on the topic of human sexuality. Since the defeat of the Hamilton-Slaughter Amendment (Click to read) some have hoped for and sensed a growing passion for a ‘Church in the West’ that embraces a more progressive, prophetic, vision for what the church could be.
Since the Western Jurisdictional Conference concluded there has been significant interest in the “A Statement of Biblical Obedience” petition that was passed overwhelmingly by the body. At the Western Jurisdictional Conference it was announced that Bishop Melvin Talbert will lead the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops in its Strategic Plan for Gospel Obedience. Given Bishop Talbert’s strong support of GLBTQ rights prior to and during the 2012 General Conference, progressives are likely to appreciate this choice. During that event, Talbert spoke to the “Love Your Neighbor Coalition” saying,
that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in our Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience.”
It isn’t difficult to hear his influence upon the ‘Gospel Obedience’ statement and given Talbert’s encouragement of obedience to God over “derogatory language and restrictive laws” (read here) the jurisdiction might expect bold action as it moves forward. Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño also expressed the WJ College of Bishop’s clear support for working toward a more inclusive church during the Episcopal Address. The text of The Statement of Gospel Obedience follows, along with the paragraph of The Book of Discipline that is referenced and the relevant portion of the Episcopal Address.
[tabs tab1=”Statement of Gospel Obedience” tab2=”¶ 161 F) Human Sexuality” tab3=”Section of Episcopal Address”]
In response to our common belief that God’s grace and love is available to all persons, the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church states our belief that the United Methodist Church is in error on the subject of “homosexuality’s incompatibility with Christian teaching.”
We commend to our bishops, clergy, local churches and ministry settings, the challenge to operate as if the statement in Para. 161F does not exist, creating a church where all people are truly welcome.
The secretary of the Western Jurisdictional Conference will submit this statement of Gospel Obedience to the Jurisdictional College of Bishops, each Annual Conference, and chairpersons of Boards of Ordained Ministry for discussion and implementation.
We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift.
Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
We deplore all forms of the commercialization, abuse, and exploitation of sex. We call for strict global enforcement of laws prohibiting the sexual exploitation of children and for adequate protection, guidance, and counseling for abused children.
All persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured and to be protected against violence. The Church should support the family in providing age-appropriate education regarding sexuality to children, youth, and adults.
We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.
The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. 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. 1
1. See Judicial Council Decision 702.
We also stand before you to unequivocally give witness to the fact that we your College of Bishops are of one mind. We believe that our beloved United Methodist Church has been less than faithful to the biblical mandate to accept all God’s children including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. We assume responsibility for preaching and teaching in every place we serve, this good news of Christ Jesus who welcomes all. We pledge to you that we will continue to work for that day when we The United Methodist Church can truly live up to our logo of open hearts, open minds, open doors. And we covenant before God and you, that we will challenge statements or actions that offend, denigrate, or exclude any person because of the color of their skin, their economic circumstance, their political persuasion, their gender or their sexual orientation. We pray that we will together build the home of God’s own vision and hope for God’s all inclusive family. Full Text
What bold action might mean is yet to be determined. Critics of similar legislation passed by the Northeastern Jurisdiction (NEJ) argue that jurisdictional conferences are not empowered to take such action (link). The Northeast Jurisdiction Evangelical Connection (NEJEC) of United Methodists released a statement shortly after the NEJ’s vote challenging the authority of a jurisdictional conference “to speak in a manner contrary to the General Conference.” The NEJ Statement and a response from its evangelical caucus can be found below.
[tabs tab1=”NEJ Statement of Principle” tab2=”NEJEC Response”]
Be it Resolved, that the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference affirms its commitment to the civil and ecclesiastical rights and privileges of all persons, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, and declares its passionate opposition to continued distinctions of church law that restrict the rights and privileges of LGBT people in The United Methodist Church; and be it further
Resolved, that the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, acknowledging the grave pastoral crisis facing the church at all levels with regard to the pastoral care of LGBT people, acknowledge that clergy, lay persons and congregations encountering institutional discrimination that inhibits equal access to the means of grace for all persons may feel bound by conscience to offer the ministries and sacraments of the church to all persons on an equal basis. Those who so act according to conscience do so in a way that is consistent with the principles of this jurisdictional conference; and be it further
Resolved, that the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference acknowledge that leaders of the conferences that comprise our jurisdiction, including cabinet members, bishops and members of boards and agencies of the annual conference, while bound to the Book of Discipline, are also bound to exercise their consciences and are bound by Jesus’s commandment to stand with the marginalized and the oppressed in our midst when called upon to enforce unjust laws, policies and procedures to the detriment of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender individuals wishing to participate fully in the life of The United Methodist Church and those who minister faithfully to them; and be it further
Resolved, that the jurisdictional conference recognize that individuals who take punitive actions against others for offering the sacraments and rituals of the church on an equal basis do so contrary to the highest ideals of the United Methodist Church at the risk of causing grave harm to LGBT persons, their loved ones, their sisters and brothers in Christ, faithful clergy and the United Methodist Church itself.
Adopted by the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, July 19, 2012.
[tab id=2]“The NEJEC is disappointed with the “Statement of Principle” concerning LGBT issues that was adopted today by the Northeast Jurisdiction (NEJ) of the United Methodist Church. This statement stands in opposition to the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church. A Jurisdictional Conference does not have the authority to speak in a manner contrary to the General Conference of the denomination. Therefore, we do not believe this statement can be implemented or enforced in any way. The position of the United Methodist Church on human sexuality has not changed. It remains consistent with 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian ethical tradition and continues to reflect the overwhelming consensus of opinion by Christians of all denominations world-wide. We call on all bishops and clergy members in the Northeast Jurisdiction to be faithful to their vows and continue to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the denomination.”[/tab]
The Discipline does clearly delegate the role of speaking for the denomination to the General Conference. The jurisdictional conferences, while tasked with several roles including the election and assignment of bishops and defining the borders of Annual Conferences, has little authority to change the rules even when its leadership perceives that it is in the best interest of the mission field. Jurisdictions are not like Central Conferences, who are permitted by Paragraph 543.7 of the Book of Discipline to
have power to make such changes and adaptations of the Book of Discipline as the special conditions and the mission of the church in the area require ….”
That said, the work of the jurisdictional conference could be of significant importance if its will is reflected by the actions of its college of bishops, annual conferences, appointive cabinets, boards of ordained ministry, clergy and lay people. While the General Conference does indeed speak for the denomination, these other groups are responsible for the action of the church. These groups have to decide how to live faithfully in a world where the ecclesial powers may be in conflict with a developing sense of God’s kin(g)dom that includes gay and lesbian people. These leaders will need to be the change agents — moving beyond hope to courageous action; willing to risk reputation for the mission field. They will also need to do so while remaining in dialogue with those within their annual conferences who have a different understanding of God’s vision for human sexuality.
Most church leaders will recognize this dynamic. Local churches are filled with people who know the right words and lead based on their ability to manipulate the rules and committees they serve on. But they also possess, albeit in more limited quantity, people who act from a place of deep affinity to the mission of that community — a love and sense of God’s vision. These are the saints who can move people and change hearts with a few words; those who embody discipleship, not membership.
The Rev. Jeremy Smith (First UMC, Portland, OR) offered these thoughts as a pastor who has just arrived in the West.
Having served in three jurisdictions now, I feel there is value in naming that though we are united in mission we are not uniform in expression of that mission. The obvious fear is that we are going at it alone, individualistic in our beliefs while expecting to remain in a churchwide relationship. Thus, the Jurisdiction might be the best place for legislation that opens our mission field and opportunities for all to serve God in God’s churches. We are not going at it alone, but are serving our area of the country as faithfully as we know how.”
While it may be true that the jurisdiction has limited authority to change the rules of the games, so to speak, it was also apparent that it is united in its desire to be obedient to the Gospel for all, even if that puts it in conflict with a church that refuses to admit that diversity of opinion exists in its ranks. From the preaching of its Bishops to the legislative action it took, the Western Jurisdiction’s appreciation of diversity is deeply rooted and multifaceted. While it is likely that the actions of the Western Jurisdictional Conference will provoke a response from those in disagreement, one might also hope this embrace will lead to constructive conversations about the nature of the connection, the importance of the mission field, and of faithfulness to a God that is still at work in the world today.