The following commentary is by Wesley Putnam, a full-time evangelist in the UMC and former president of the National Association of United Methodist Evangelists.
Below, Mr. Putnam provides an eyewitness account of a Feb. 27 church conference at University United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, at which the church voted to affiliate with the pro-homosexuality Reconciling Ministries Network.
RMN seeks to change the United Methodist Church’s position on same-sex relations, which is rooted in the historic Christian teaching that sexual contact between two men or two women falls outside the boundaries of acceptable moral conduct for disciples of Jesus Christ.
RMN also seeks to end the UMC’s prohibition on accepting sexually active homosexuals as candidates for ordained ministry (¶304.3 of the UM Book of Discipline).
Links in the commentary below have been added by MethodistThinker.com. — Ed.
I got up early on Sunday, Feb. 27, and headed out from Bedford, Texas, to Austin. This was the day that had been advertised by University United Methodist Church as the day they were going to vote on becoming a Reconciling Congregation.
“A local church or any of its organizational units may not identify or label itself as an unofficial body or movement.
“Such identification or labeling is divisive and makes the local church subject to the possibility of being in conflict with the Discipline and doctrines of The United Methodist Church.”
“[A]nnual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.”
The primary problem with this vote is that it is clearly forbidden by Decision #871 of the United Methodist Judicial Council [see excerpt at left]. In addition, Judicial Council Decision #886 has bearing on this matter [also excepted at left].
As soon as I found out that University UMC was planning this vote, I notified the pastor, the Rev. John Elford, that he was moving the church in a direction that seemed to be in clear violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. He indicated he was determined to continue and had already discussed it with his District Superintendent.
I then contacted the office for the District Superintendent in the Austin District, the Rev. Bobbi Kaye Jones, citing the relevant Judicial Council Decisions. I never received a response.
Next, I contacted Bishop Jim Dorff of the Southwest Texas Conference and informed him of the plans of UUMC. He excused the action because, in his view, the congregation was only “affiliating” — not “identifying” — with the Reconciling Ministries Network.
I fail to see the difference. Affiliating with a group is identifying with a group. And Judicial Council Decision #871 simply says that Annual Conferences, local churches, and units within churches (Sunday School classes, UMW groups, etc.) are forbidden to “identify or label” themselves as “an unofficial body or movement.”
After weeks of back and forth emails, I decided to attend the Feb. 27 Church Conference at University UMC as an observer. I also attended the morning worship service just before the church conference.
A first-hand account
The sanctuary at UUMC is lovely, and the bottom floor was comfortably full with between 250 and 300 worshipers. The congregation that gathered was multi-generational. I was met by friendly greetings from several members as I made my way to my seat.
I noticed that rainbow crosses and pink triangles were displayed on many lapels.
The pipe organ was belting out a rousing call to worship and the sound reverberated off the ample hardwood surfaces of the room. The atmosphere was celebratory as the congregants anticipated the purpose of this day.
The style of worship was traditional. There was a lot of liturgy and an assortment of ancient hymns, plus also a couple of more recent songs from the hymnal supplement.
Everything in the service was designed to lead up to this historic vote. Even the children’s sermon was a call to remember that there are many different pieces that make up a puzzle.
“When God’s peace is at work, even though we are going in lots of different directions, God brings us together and gives us God’s love,” the pastor told the children. “To love each other, care for each other and be reconciled to each other. We want to be with all different kinds of people, not just people just like us,” he said.
The last statement was directed to the adult congregation more so than it was to the children.
University UMC’s pastor, John Elford, is a tall man with a quiet and conversational speaking style. In remarks sprinkled with humor, he emphasized that UUMC is a “welcoming congregation” and the people there are “learning more and more every day” about all that term means.
Ironically, the Scripture Pastor Elford chose to speak on was “Blessed are the peacemakers” — on a day when he was leading the church to take a divisive action.
|Audio of John Elford’s Feb. 27 sermon (19 min.)|
I certainly didn’t disagree with everything he said. He spoke of the hard work Jesus calls us to of reconciling the world to God. He said it is not always easy to make peace. Peacemaking can be back-breaking work in which we must trust God’s providence for success.
Pastor Elford said we need not fear as we do this work because evil is being overcome with good. He declared that the forces we are up against are what Paul called “principalities and powers.”
Regrettably, the context of the day infused Pastor Elford’s words with a meaning that differs from church’s historic proclamation of the gospel. Ultimately, the pastor of University United Methodist Church was challenging his congregation to “make peace” with what God’s Word has declared to be sinful. In this new meaning of things, a person cannot be truly “welcomed” unless his or her behavior is affirmed and even endorsed.
Pastor Elford was calling his church to celebrate behavior that has been condemned for thousands of years — including in both the Old and New Testaments.
Further, he was asking them to violate the spirit of our denominational Book of Discipline and the clear intent of the UM Judicial Council by joining an unofficial group whose statement of purpose is opposed to church law.
The controversy over how the church will treat homosexual behavior has been “front and center” in every General Conference for four decades. The United Methodist response has been consistent, clear, and gracious. We view homosexuals — as we do all people — as being of sacred worth, but we recognize homosexual behavior as being contrary to the teaching of Scripture and the established body of doctrine held by the church. That is our stand.
It is not the prerogative of a pastor or local church to purposely rebel against settled church law, while suggesting that everyone who opposes them (including, by implication, the UM Judicial Council, the General Conference, and every orthodox UM member) is a part of the “principalities and powers” of darkness.
But led by their pastor, and with the district superintendent present, this is precisely what University United Methodist Church did. After the 11 a.m. service, by a vote of 228 to 15, UUMC became affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network.
Why this matters
The wording of the ballot (shown below at right) makes it clear that the ruling of the Judicial Council has been violated. By calling itself “a member of RMN” and placing the phrase “A Reconciling Congregation” on its website and other communications, UUMC has identified or labeled itself as an unofficial body or movement.There are several possible chargeable offenses inherent in this action.
I believe in presiding over this vote, the Rev. Bobbi Kaye Jones failed in her job as a District Superintendent. When this Church Conference was called for, she should have ruled the meeting out of order and refused to place the power of her office behind this action.
Moreover, because Bishop Jim Dorff was made aware of this action and refused to intervene, he has, in my opinion, failed to do his job in upholding and defending the faith and enforcing the Discipline.
Why does the action of University UMC matter? In a word, it’s all about covenant. As an elder in the United Methodist Church, I am in covenant with all other elders, bishops and district superintendents included.The Discipline defines that covenant in Paragraph 306: “An order is a covenant community within the church to mutually support, care for, and hold accountable its members for the sake of the life and mission of the church” (emphasis added).
This is serious business.
This whole debate began in the 1990s when my home conference in Northwest Texas voted to become a “Confessing Conference.” This action was challenged and the Judicial Council rulings cited above were made. Any church or conference that had declared itself as affiliated with the Confessing Movement or Reconciling Movement were asked to remove any mention of it from their signage and printed materials.
The Confessing Movement churches and conferences complied. But as the Reconciling Ministries Network continues enlisting churches in its cause, the bishops are turning a blind eye.
Because of the vows I took as a member of the order of elders, I am compelled to speak up. I will not be silent.