BISHOP MARY ANN SWENSON
Dear Colleagues on the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church,
I send you greetings in the name of the Risen Jesus Christ!
Yesterday, a statement was issued by the Executive Committee of our Council urging our colleague Bishop Melvin Talbert not to perform the rite of Christian marriage for Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw this weekend in Birmingham, Alabama. I was not able to be present when the Executive Committee made this decision, and I write to inform you of my dissent of the statement from this Committee. It is important for me to keep covenant and to follow the rule, “do no harm.”
As bishops we do try to respect each other’s authority to administer and pastor in the Episcopal areas to which we have been assigned. However, each of us must follow our conscience and there are times when pastoral ministry demands that we care for those in need and those who have been harmed by our Church. As evidenced in the heartfelt letter Joe and Bobby wrote to the Council, harm is being done by our United Methodist Church when we lessen the humanity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people, the love shared between same-gender couples, and the love expressed in their families.
For too long, the Church has refused to see the face of God in LGBTQ people like Joe and Bobby, speaking instead of the importance of “clergy covenant” and upholding antiquated and unjust laws that do not conform to our Wesleyan understandings of Scripture through tradition, reason, and experience. We reduce gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer people to sexual activities, robbing them of their full humanity, the love, fidelity, and grace found in faithful companionship, as well as deny our understanding of human sexuality as a good gift from God.
Recently I was on an ecumenical trip to the holy land that included an Episcopal Archdeacon who was married to his spouse, Tom, by his bishops. It was painful to me to think that even as we are engaged in full communion dialogue with the Episcopalians, our United Methodist bishops are not able to be pastors to their people in the same way.
As bishops of The United Methodist Church, we are committed of course to uphold The Book of Discipline because the Discipline provides structure and guidance for our common life together as United Methodists. But our faith is in Jesus Christ, not in The Book of Discipline.
There are times when Biblical Obedience – faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus and his new commandments given to us in the Scriptures – trumps following the letter of the law in our Discipline. It is written in the Scriptures that our risen savior Christ Jesus broke the Sabbath commandments and healed those who needed healing. Jesus broke these commandments not for the sake of disregarding the law but to follow the spirit of the law found in the greatest commandments to love God and to love neighbor. Jesus has given us the commandment to love one another. Who are we to stand in the way of God’s law for the universe? It is in this spirit of love of God and neighbor that we can find inspiration and direction for how our church should respond to the unjust laws found in our Discipline.
The language in our Discipline is wrong. Indeed, we must work to change these immoral laws at General Conference. But General Conference only comes every four years and no LGBTQ person should have to wait any longer to experience the full love of God in Christian community at a United Methodist church.
The time has come for acts of faith and courage. I support Bishop Talbert in his willingness to officiate a service of Christian marriage for Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw, two faithful men whose story I personally have heard and whose deep love for each other I have witnessed. Until we can revise the discriminatory language of The Book of Discipline, I encourage my colleague bishops to follow the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, to ignore these unjust laws of our Discipline, and to permit United Methodist clergy who find it in their consciences and in their duties to fulfill the pastoral needs of those in their flock to celebrate ceremonies of Christian marriage for same-gender couples to do so. We all have the power to do the right thing.
Scripture tells us that if we belong to Christ, we are heirs to the promises of God. Christ has set us free. Let us not continue to imprison our LGBTQ family and friends with shackles of unjust laws that counter the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Grace and peace,
Bishop Mary Ann Swenson
Ecumenical Officer, Council of Bishops
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Bishop Swenson speaking at ChurchQuake, RMN's national convocation
Read more on the Openshaw/Prince wedding in Birmingham.