Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
I write to you today with a heavy heart and prayerful spirit about the discord in our church concerning same gender marriage.
In our sister conference, the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, a pastor was found guilty in a church trial for officiating the wedding of his son to another man. Last week, the Council of Bishops voted to file a complaint against one of our bishops for celebrating the marriage of a same gender couple. There are at least two more pending church trials against clergy who have performed same gender marriages in conferences within the Northeastern Jurisdiction. One of these cases also involves a clergyperson conducting the marriage ceremony of his son.
Same gender marriage has set member against member within our congregations and set clergy person against clergy person within our denomination. Yesterday, I received an email from a young adult who wrote in response to the verdict and sentence in Eastern Pennsylvania, “this makes me not want to be a part of the church.” It is also setting disciples against the church.
There are laity and clergy who strongly feel that the bishops need to act so that clergy who perform same gender marriages are held accountable. They feel that if the duly established order of the church is not upheld and enforced, The Book of Discipline and our clergy covenant will stop having meaning. Some want a moratorium on conversation about homosexuality because they feel the church has made up its mind.
Some believe it is unconscionable for pastors not to be providing pastoral care and officiating weddings for their gay and lesbian parishioners. They are frustrated because the General Conference votes to keep the same policies in spite of changing views in society and in the pews. Some are wondering if they should leave the church because of how we are treating gays and lesbians. More and more United Methodists in the United States are refusing to accept the General Conference's decision.
As a bishop I am at heart a pastor. I understand that there are those of you who are hurt by the policies of our church. I understand that you experience the church’s position as demeaning of your humanity or the humanity of your loved ones. I know you feel condemned and judged based on one aspect of your being. This pains me. I know that each gay and lesbian person is a child of God of sacred worth.
General Conference has been consistent for the past 40 years in saying that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The Book of Discipline is also clear that we will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another as Christ has loved and accepted us. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
One reality has impacted my thinking the most. As United Methodists, we are called to make disciples to transform the world. The consistent message we are hearing from the people in the world – those we are called to reach out to for Christ – is that they do not understand our preoccupation with human sexuality. Some even believe we “hate gays and lesbians.” They believe we hate.
We need to communicate love. The world did not say about the early Christians: "See how they agree with one another;" the world said: "See how they love one another.” We want the people of the world today to know we are Christian by our love.
I recognize we will not have agreement within the church about homosexuality in the near future. We do not need to be in agreement. We need to love each other, care about each other and demonstrate that love and care to the people in the world.
I invite you to make love your aim.
I call upon the people of the United Methodist Churches of Greater New Jersey not to hate, persecute, bully, or ignore LGBT people. LGBT people are children of God, loved by God and saved through the love of Jesus Christ.
I call pastors to honor law and grace and to be guided by Christ-like compassion and love in our most difficult decisions.
I call all of us to find a new way forward. Church trials in these matters diminish our witness and diminish us as a church. We have adopted a secular means of solving disputes rather than using Christian conferencing and council as found in the scriptures.
I invite you to pray for the church, to pray for me, to pray for the people affected by these trials and divisions and to pray that we will find Christ-like ways to resolve and heal our differences.
I pledge to make this a matter of ongoing prayer and discernment. I also pledge to work with each of you as we engage in thoughtful conversation about same gender marriages and seek God’s will for our leadership and the church.
I also want you to know that I will maintain an open, welcoming and loving presence to all people regardless of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, age, theology and all of the other ways we find to demean and diminish people by segregating and dismissing their worth to God and the church. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment… We love because God first loved us.” -1 John 4:18
May the God of grace and hope keep the church in Christ’s love and righteousness throughout these days.
John Schol, Bishop
The United Methodist Church
Greater New Jersey Conference