- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

A ruling by United Methodism’s highest judicial court allowing pastors to forbid homosexuals to become church members has provoked a revolt in the 8.2 million-member denomination.

The 65 active Methodist bishops in the nation, meeting in Lake Junaluska, N.C., unanimously voted Wednesday to issue a pastoral letter contesting a 5-3 ruling last weekend in Houston by the eight-member Judicial Council. The council’s rulings are the final word on Methodist doctrine.

“While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier,” the bishops wrote in a letter to be read aloud or distributed this Sunday in Methodist churches around the world.

Quoting from the church’s constitution, “All persons,” they wrote, “without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible … upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking the vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church.”

Although “status,” never has been defined by a Methodist court, homosexual advocates say the word applies to them.

The bishops were addressing a case involving South Hill United Methodist Church near Petersburg, Va. After the Rev. Ed Johnson, pastor of South Hill, refused to allow a homosexual choir member to join the church, Virginia Bishop Charlene Kammerer suspended him July 1.

Not only did the Judicial Council reverse her decision, they ordered Virginia Methodist officials to find him a new church and reinstate his back pay. But the Rev. Susan T. Henry-Crowe of Atlanta, one of the three dissenters on the council, said the decision “compromises the historic understanding that the church is open to all.”

The council, she added, “cannot interpret something that is not stated in the [Methodist Book of] Discipline,” the church’s law.

The council’s decision, which could undercut bishops’ authority over their pastors, caused concern throughout the denomination. Bishop John Schol of the Baltimore-Washington Conference said he had received more than 200 e-mail messages on the subject.

“I recognize that the church is not of one mind on the issue of homosexuality,” he said yesterday in a statement, “… but I want you to know that the Council of Bishops is of one mind: Gay and lesbian people are not to be excluded from church membership.”

He added, “I am concerned that United Methodism is in danger of becoming as pharisaic as the religious leaders during the time of Jesus were.”

Bishop Schol became known several years ago for hiring a lesbian pastor, the Rev. Irene “Beth” Stroud, as his associate at a Philadelphia-area church. Miss Stroud, who later relocated to another congregation, was defrocked Monday by the same Judicial Council.

Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy dismissed the bishops’ letter.

“They did not ask the Judicial Council to reconsider its decision,” he said. “There was clearly not majority support for that; so, as a sop to the liberals, the conservative bishops probably went along with the statement.”

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