Indiana Area Bishop Michael J. Coyner on Oct. 15 published his criticisms of the Western Jurisdiction’s stand against the United Methodist Church’s teaching on homosexuality.Delegates to the Western Jurisdiction’s meeting July 18-21 adopted a “Statement of Gospel Obedience” that says the denomination is in error in its stance that the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The jurisdiction’s statement also urged United Methodists to operate as if that stance in Paragraph 161F of the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, “does not exist, creating a church where all people are truly welcome.”
In his Oct. 15 E-pistle to the Indiana Conference, Bishop Coyner faulted the Western Jurisdiction’s actions in three ways.
He said the statement:
• Comes across as a kind of “neo-colonialism,” distrusting the actions of the global church’s General Conference, which increasingly includes delegates from outside the United States, particularly Africa.
• Is a “very poor substitute for the honorable practice of civil disobedience as expressed clearly by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
• Does not “offer the church any way forward on this difficult issue.”
“What if the Western Jurisdiction, which has a proud history of diversity, tolerance, and openness to new models of ministry, had offered some suggestions for our United Methodist Church to move forward on this issue?” Bishop Coyner wrote. “Instead, the actions and statements of the Western Jurisdiction seem to conclude that ‘we are right and everyone else is wrong.’”
WJ bishops responds
Los Angeles Area Bishop Minerva Carcaño, who leads the California-Pacific Conference, and Phoenix Area Bishop Robert Hoshibata, who leads the Desert Southwest Conference, took issue with Bishop Coyner’s appraisal of their jurisdiction’s statement.
“There is a rather large jump from the statement agreed upon at the WJ Conference and neo-colonialism,” Bishop Carcaño said. “Neo-colonialism is a complex socio-economic, political and historical reality that in my opinion is not appropriately used in this situation. It does, however, add gravitas to Bishop Coyner’s statement and elevates a church situation to a level it does not deserve. It does, though, add to the barriers that we continue to erect among ourselves that do not allow us to have the conversation we need to have about not only this issue, but a number of other issues pertaining to the social, moral and ethical fiber of our church and our witness to the world, or lack thereof.”
She added that delegates from the Western Jurisdiction have been seeking change to the denomination’s stance on homosexuality long before the increase in African delegates that was apparent at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla.
“What I read in the jurisdiction’s statement is not that we know better than everybody else but that we know differently,” Bishop Hoshibata said. “What we taught centuries ago and called it the Gospel of Jesus Christ has changed with the world and with culture.”
The bishops also said the Western Jurisdiction stands in the tradition of King’s practice of civil disobedience during the U.S. civil rights movement.
“Whenever there is any injustice — an injustice against one person, one group or one community — I think those are opportunities to speak out and share our thoughts and our concerns,” Bishop Hoshibata said. “It’s also an opportunity for us to demonstrate what we feel Christ has called us to do when he calls us to justice. This is precisely the Christ-like response I think Martin Luther King would have been supportive of.”
Bishop Carcaño said the Western Jurisdiction “stands in the tradition of Dr. King’s practice of civil disobedience.” She said United Methodists in the jurisdiction have been in prayerful reflection on the matter of inclusivity for a long time.
“It is our collective conclusion that God leads us in a different direction and that we can longer remain silent,” she said.
“We are aware of the disciplinary consequences and believe that faithfulness to God is more important than staying in the ranks and file of the church and continuing to do what we United Methodists have done for too long. We have spoken and lived in contradictory ways; we have said that persons of homosexual orientation are of sacred worth but not worthy of fully being a part of the church.”
United Methodist News Service also sent emails to other bishops in the Western Jurisdiction. Most are traveling this week, and they did not immediately respond.
The Western Jurisdiction encompasses Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, Guam and other U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean.
Hope for conversation
At the beginning of his response to the Western Jurisdiction, Bishop Coyner stressed that he was writing only his personal opinion as a bishop. He noted that his comments do not reflect the official position of the Indiana Conference, the North Central Jurisdiction or the Council of Bishops.
“Lots of people here in Indiana have been asking me for my personal response, and so rather than having thousands of conversations, it seemed easier to send out one statement for anyone to read who is interested,” he told UMNS.
He added that he hoped his response would “encourage further conversation” among United Methodists.
Bishop Coyner described himself as a member of the “great middle” of the United Methodist Church where he believes many church members find themselves.
“Right now, it feels like people are ‘talking past one another’ rather than having conversations with one another,” he said.
Divisions at GC 2012
The Western Jurisdiction’s actions followed the defeat at General Conference, the denomination’s top-lawmaking body, of a proposal to say the church was in disagreement about homosexuality.
During General Conference, bishops take turns presiding during the plenary sessions, and Bishop Coyner was presiding at the morning session May 3 when delegates rejected proposals to change the denomination’s stance on homosexuality.
After those petitions failed, dozens of protesters gathered on the plenary floor after the break, singing “What Does the Lord Require of You?” Bishop Coyner asked the demonstrators to stop, and when they did not, he recessed the session for an early lunch. “I think you’re actually hurting your point,” he told the group.
The protesters stayed on the plenary floor through the lunch break, and representatives from the Council of Bishops negotiated with leaders of the demonstration and found a solution to the impasse. Germany’s Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, then the new president of the Council of Bishops, opened the session with a statement crafted by the bishops. The Rev. Frank Wulf, a California-Pacific Conference delegate, prayed. And the demonstrators left the floor peacefully.
“That particular protest moved toward being unhelpful when they disrupted times of worship and when their protest came without any advance discussion of their goals,” Bishop Coyner told UMNS on Oct. 15. “Having the General Conference go into recess allowed various leaders of the groups and General Conference leaders to work out a resolution—which I believe was appropriate and fair.”
A way forward?
In his E-pistle, Bishop Coyner suggested that General Conference might one day modify its various statements on human sexuality “first to affirm Christians of good will are in disagreement on these issues, and second to adopt a more moderate and holistic approach to these issues.”
However, he said, such changes should come with “prayer, theological reflection, humility, listening to God and listening to one another.”
The Western Jurisdiction, he said, was not providing a helpful way forward.
Bishop Carcaño disputed Bishop Coyner’s assertion that the jurisdiction’s statement does not provide a way for the denomination to move into the future.
“The statement says that in the West we will live with integrity what we have said as United Methodists—that we are all of sacred worth and all welcomed,” she said. ”We recognize that the WJ statement puts the WJ in tension with other parts of the church. Perhaps this tension will be just what we need to lead the entire denomination to a better place. I am hoping that it will help us create the kind of Christian conferencing we need to be having on all matters important to God; a holy and disciplined conversation that does not wait for General Conference, but that is a daily exercise in our efforts to be faithful to God. For the opportunity to reflect on this matter, I am grateful to Bishop Coyner.”
Bishop Coyner also took issue with those who see the Western Jurisdiction’s actions as a prelude to a schism in the United Methodist Church.
“Perhaps, I have been overly optimistic or hopeful,” he said. “But I do not believe our United Methodist Church will split. To me, it would be a sad commentary about our inability to ‘conference together’ if we allow an issue like sexuality to split us.”
Bishop Wenner, the Council of Bishops president, said Bishop Coyner’s statement “indicates that we need to engage in holy conversation on the question of human sexuality—not only at General Conference, but throughout the quadrennium.”
She said the Council of Bishops takes a lead on this.
“We meet as colleagues from all regions of the church, and we hopefully will model that we are united in Christ and in responding to the call to make disciples even in our diversity.”
The Council of Bishops will meet Nov. 4-9 for the first time with its new members.