Bishop Sally Dyck’s recent statement endorsing same-sex marriage has drawn praise and criticism within the United Methodist Church, which officially holds that homosexual conduct is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
In an interview, she rejected claims by some that her stand will promote disunity in the denomination.
“Find me a United Methodist who believes and accepts everything in the Book of Discipline,” she said, referring to the UMC law book. “Even (conservative unofficial UMC caucus) Good News respectfully noted that I hadn’t disobeyed the Book of Discipline. I was just publicly disagreeing with it. I don’t think that brings disunity.”
Bishop Dyck oversees the Northern Illinois Conference, and on Jan. 10 she posted a statement announcing her support for legislation before the Illinois General Assembly that would legalize same-sex marriage.
“While the United Methodist Church holds that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, it also holds the teaching and a long tradition (albeit a struggle every inch of the way) of civil rights,” she wrote. “Marriage equality is a civil rights issue; it provides for all what is afforded to some.”
Bishop Dyck noted in her statement that she’s not able to perform such a ceremony, or allow clergy under her supervision to do so, because of restrictions in the Book of Discipline.
“But just because I can’t provide the service of marriage to same-sex couples doesn’t mean that I should prevent people from being able to commit their lives to each other in the State of Illinois,” she said.
Among those saluting Bishop Dyck was the Rev. Gilbert Caldwell, a retired UM clergyman and longtime civil rights advocate.
“She and other bishops, pastors and lay persons in the United Methodist Church who today support marriage equality for same sex-couples are to be congratulated rather than condemned,” he said. “Why do we in our denomination continue to believe that exclusion of some rather than inclusion of all is an appropriate response to the inclusive love we have seen in Jesus?”
Randall Miller, interim executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus within the UMC supporting gay rights, also praised Bishop Dyck for what he called a “brave decision to support the rights of same-sex couples to get married.”
He added that his group wished she had also offered support for having same-sex marriage ceremonies in UM churches.
“We understand she’s trying in good faith to maintain her oaths to the United Methodist Book of Discipline,” Dr. Miller said. “We’re encouraged by her recent statements and actions.”
Good News, which strongly supports the church’s current position on homosexuality, quickly issued a statement expressing disappointment with Bishop Dyck.
“We respect Bishop Dyck and have worked well with her in the past in relating to the Unity Task Force of the Council of Bishops which she led,” the statement said. “However, we believe that for Bishop Dyck to advocate a minority position that is at odds with the stated position of the church fosters disunity and deepens the sense of disconnect felt by many United Methodist members.”
The group added: “We share Bishop Dyck’s commitment to ensure the protection of the civil rights of all persons. However, there are other ways to ensure the civil rights of gay and lesbian persons without redefining the bedrock institution of marriage. We see no reason why the church should allow a secular, anthropocentric, hyper-sexualized Western culture to tell us what marriage is, rather than looking to the Scriptures and, with real concern for the rights of all, maintaining what God has revealed.”
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of Good News, told United Methodist News Service that he did not see Bishop Dyck’s statement as advocating disobedience to the Book of Discipline, but rather expressing opposition to part of it.
But he also argued that Bishop Dyck and retired Bishop Melvin Talbert—who has gone on record advocating that UM clergy perform same-sex unions, something prohibited by church law— “are engaging in activities that tend to undermine the unity of the United Methodist Church.”
Bishop Dyck said the church already is clearly divided on the issue, with support for gay rights gaining in the United States. She described what she posted as “a statement of honesty that helps us to be able to be in dialogue in order to move through and figure out how it is to live together.”
The UMC has, for four decades, had language in its Book of Discipline declaring that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The church does not ordain openly gay people, and does not allow clergy to officiate at same-sex unions.
Efforts to change the church’s position on homosexuality, including at the 2012 General Conference, have all failed. An “agree to disagree” proposal championed by the Rev. Adam Hamilton and the Rev. Mike Slaughter, UM mega-church pastors, also was defeated, though Bishop Dyck said she believes it enjoyed majority support among U.S. delegates.
Other mainline Protestant denominations have modified, to various degrees, their stances on homosexuality. But in the UMC, delegates from Africa, who have increased in number as the church has grown there, have joined with social conservatives in the United States and elsewhere to uphold the status quo.
Many UM clergy have in the last two years announced their support for same-sex unions, including more than 1,100 who signed pledges saying they would officiate at such ceremonies, despite church law. Others in the church, including Good News members, have urged the bishops to enforce the Book of Discipline against such clergy.
The Northern Illinois Conference has been a stronghold for gay rights, petitioning the General Conference in 2011 to remove all discriminatory language about homosexuality from the Book of Discipline.
But Bishop Dyck’s statement drew negative reaction from the Northern Illinois Conference Evangelical Association, which chair James Blue said consists of about 130 people, both clergy and laity.
“We regret the disunity that Bishop Dyck’s statement will inevitably bring to local congregations and we encourage the Illinois General Assembly to find another way to ensure the civil rights of gay couples without redefining marriage which has for millennia been the foundational unit of human society,” the association’s statement concludes.
Bishop Dyck said in the interview that understandings of marriage have changed over time, as evidence by uncritical accounts of polygamy in the Old Testament.
“There’s no sense that any of that was really wrong, especially with polygamy,” she said. “You have to admit that marriage is in a cultural context and a historical context.”
She said she wanted with her statement to stress the importance of life-long committed relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual.
“For the health of individuals and communities, that’s what we need to value,” she said.
Bishop Dyck said she knew her statement had gone “viral” within moments of its posting, but had not had time to monitor all of the email response. She said some of the support she’s received comes from “those who want a little space and grace to be in the church” but have been off put but its stance on homosexuality.
To date, nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, while 30 have added language to their constitutions banning same-sex marriage, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Illinois has, since 2011, been among the states taking a middle ground, allowing civil unions that provide many legal protections for same-sex couples, but not allowing them to marry.
Advocates for same-sex marriage in Illinois say it’s a matter of fairness for same-sex couples, and also will strengthen their legal protections.