Tuesday, September 17, 2013

letter 51

Bishop Mark Webb
Upper New York Annual Conference, United Methodist Church 324 University Avenue, 3rd floor
Syracuse, NY 13210

Dear Bishop Webb,

I am writing in regard to the ongoing “just resolution” phase and potential church trial of Rev. Stephen Heiss of Tabernacle UMC in Binghamton, based on his acknowledgement of performing same-sex marriages. I am opposed to this action by The United Methodist Church, which is contradictory to the fundamental beliefs of Christian doctrine and to the Wesleyan theological grounding of the United Methodist Church.

To provide context for my opposition, I’d like to share a bit of my own background. I am a daughter and granddaughter of United Methodists, growing up in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference and spending ten years in the West Virginia Annual Conference before moving here to what is now the Upper New York Conference nearly a decade ago. I’ve been active in the church in all three conferences: teaching Sunday School, singing in chancel choir, and serving on Finance, Staff-Parish Relations, and Church Council. I graduated from a United Methodist institution, West Virginia Wesleyan College, and was a faculty member there for ten years.

I am a United Methodist by choice, not just by family history, and one of the most fundamental values instilled in me by my upbringing and ongoing membership in the church is the United Methodist commitment to social justice. The rule under which Rev. Heiss is being prosecuted violates this value of the United Methodist Church by promoting inequality among members of the church body: LGBTQ persons in the church have lesser standing than heterosexual members of the church or, for that matter, heterosexuals who are only loosely affiliated with the church. As a teacher, I have known many students who have been and continue to be actively involved in their local United Methodist churches but who cannot be ordained or married in their own church. As a member of St. Paul’s UMC since moving to New York, I am part of a congregation that explicitly welcomes and affirms all persons, including LGBTQ persons and families, who participate fully in worship, in leading children’s activities, and in committee work. These full members of my United Methodist congregation demonstrate daily their commitment to the word of God and the social justice tenets of the Church, yet they cannot be married in their own sanctuary. This stands in stark contrast to my own personal joy of sharing the commitment of my marriage ceremony with my church family, standing to be married in the same place where I worshipped each week. Even those who are only loosely affiliated with the Church, if heterosexual, may be married within a church, in a ceremony performed by a United Methodist clergyperson, yet we deny this same privilege to devout members of our own congregations because of their sexuality. The current United Methodist Book of Discipline (2012) claims that the church is called to inclusiveness, meaning “openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the church, community, and world; therefore, inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination.” (p. 99). Thus, policies such as the prohibition on same-sex marriages both fundamentally contradict the United Methodist commitment to social justice and are in direct contradiction to the expressed call to inclusiveness spelled out in the Book of Discipline.

Moreover, the rule specifically prohibiting pastors from participating in same-sex marriage ceremonies interferes with the clergy responsibility to care for all of God’s children. This fundamental responsibility of pastors is rooted in the biblical story of the shepherd and the lost sheep and in John Wesley’s admonition to “do no harm”. It is inherently contradictory to prohibit pastors from performing marriage
September 7, 2013ceremonies for same-sex couples while also expecting them to minister to all persons as children of God and to espouse the inclusivity of the church. This contradiction harms both pastors and church laity. From my long relationship with the United Methodist Church, I have met and know well a number of United Methodist clergy and all of these persons take seriously their call to care for the spiritual growth of their congregations and members of the community at large. Indeed, turning again to the Book of Discipline (2012), the section on the responsibilities of ordained ministries ends with the assertion that “The ordained ministry is defined by its faithful commitment to servant leadership following the example of Jesus Christ, by its passion for the hallowing of life, and by its concern to link all local ministries with the widest boundaries of Christian community” (p. 99). Prohibiting pastors from addressing the spiritual needs of their own congregants and, in cases such as Rev. Heiss’, of their own children, is in conflict with the basic responsibilities of the pastorate, causing internal and external conflict and harming the pastorate and the Church as a body.

Beyond the harms created by the prohibition on United Methodist clergy performing same-sex weddings, the prohibition stands in contradiction to basic biblical teaching and United Methodist theology. In the New Testament, Mark 7 tells of Jesus’ anger at the hypocrisy of Pharisees who focus on the doctrines of man instead of the doctrines of God. Matthew 23:23-24 states, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” The United Methodist Book of Discipline (2012) asserts that “The underlying energy of the Wesleyan theological heritage stems from an emphasis on practical divinity, the implementation of genuine Christianity in the lives of believers.” (p. 49) and adds “The Wesleyan emphasis upon the Christian life – faith and love put into practice has been the hallmark of those traditions now incorporated into The United Methodist Church” (p. 49). Faith, love, mercy, justice: these are the basic principles of the Church. The church exists to provide comfort from suffering, not to inflict it upon people by its actions, as it does by these discriminatory practices.

As members of Christ’s body and the United Methodist Church, we are all called to obey the fundamental commandment of Christ: above all, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Prohibiting United Methodist pastors from performing same-sex marriage services and prosecuting them for this act is contrary to loving our neighbors; like the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23-24, it strains out a gnat while swallowing a camel. Prosecuting Rev. Heiss fails to meet the Wesleyan standard of testing scripture, tradition, and experience by reason; when the specific policy about same-sex marriage contradicts the fundamental tenets of the pastoral role and of Jesus’ teachings, reason dictates that we follow Jesus and the many components of the Book of Discipline that require pastors to nurture the spiritual growth of all and to be inclusive in the ministries of the Church.

Growing up in the United Methodist Church provided me with deep understandings of God’s grace, the importance of an inclusive Christian community, and a commitment to combatting social injustice of all kinds. I am writing today from that values foundation and from an intention that my children grow up in a church that puts into practice the same fundamental principles of faith, love, mercy, and justice for all persons, a church that does not discriminate against persons based on their sexual orientation and that does not prosecute pastors for following the teachings of Jesus. On this basis, I urge you to stop the proceedings against Rev. Heiss and to abstain from pursuing similar actions against other United Methodist clergy.

Danette Ifert Johnson

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