An Open Letter to Western PA United Methodists

Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton



December 2, 2013
Dear Sisters & Brothers in Christ,
Grace and peace to each of you as we begin this season of Advent.  I pray that you will experience a season of hope, expectancy, peace, and joy as we give thanks for all of God’s wonderful blessings.
When I was a younger man I often employed a philosophy when faced with someone who had a different opinion than I did.  That philosophy was quite simply this:  I would pray for you and hope that at some point you would come to your senses.  It wasn’t until some time later that I began to understand that when someone had a different viewpoint from mine, it wasn’t necessarily that they were wrong.  It was just that their opinion was different.  That new philosophy has helped me to listen more closely to the viewpoints of others, consider their thoughts, and value them as children of God.
That same struggle between absolute convictions on the one hand and respect for one another on the other has become the centerpiece of conversation within our denomination in the past few weeks.  Within our United Methodist Church we currently find ourselves immersed once again in a debate on the question of human sexuality, particularly the matter of how to respond to clergy who perform same gender marriages which are prohibited by our United Methodist Book of Discipline, our book of church law.  The recent same gender marriage of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince by retired bishop Melvin Talbert along with the recent trial and conviction of Rev. Frank Schaefer in Eastern Pennsylvania for performing a same gender ceremony for his son has brought this issue and the church’s viewpoint once again to the forefront.
This issue has strong emotions attached to both sides and the debate has been painful to everyone.  In many places across our denomination, this issue has caused both laity and clergy alike to be pitted against one another.  I am hearing from laity and clergy who believe it is unconscionable for pastors not to be providing pastoral care to gay and lesbians in their communities.  I am also hearing from others who strongly feel that those who perform same gender marriages need to be held accountable to the positions stated in our Book of Discipline.  It is clear that our church is not of one mind.
Persons like retired bishop Melvin Talbert and Rev. Frank Schaefer have decided that the current stance of the church is unjust and can no longer abide by the provisions of our Book of Discipline.  They are attempting to find a way to act upon their convictions and remain a part of the church.  Others have expectations that those in leadership will abide by the Book of Discipline and believe that anything less will compromise the integrity and structure of our polity.
Recently our Council of Bishops spent significant time in closed session debating this issue and our response.  As a result, the Council decided to respectfully request that a formal complaint be filed against retired bishop Talbert for his actions.  In addition, in the recent trial in Eastern Pennsylvania, Rev. Schaefer was suspended for thirty days.  If he cannot declare that he will follow the church’s discipline within those thirty days he will be required to surrender his credentials.  Some within the church have expressed appreciation and support for these actions.  Others have voiced great opposition to these decisions. 
Quite often when issues like this arise, there are those who ask, “What will our bishops do about this matter?”  Some hope that the bishops will be prophetic and break from church law and become disappointed when this does not happen.  It is important to realize that our Book of Discipline is very clear about the role and function of episcopal leaders.  The Book of Discipline states that bishops are required to “uphold the discipline and order of the Church.” (¶403.1.f) What that means for me is that if I am to fulfill my responsibilities as a bishop, I have no choice but to uphold the provisions found within our discipline.  I remain faithful and committed to doing this in the exercising of my ministry among you.
Others hope that the bishops will exercise authority and settle matters of dispute quickly and decisively.  Those persons express great disappointment when this does not occur.  It is important to know that the General Conference has given the Council of Bishops very limited authority to hold one another accountable.    What does exist in our Book of Discipline is a consistent complaint process that applies to laity, clergy and bishops alike.  When an allegation is made, our Book of Discipline outlines the detailed process that must be followed and clearly states that the purpose of a complaint is a just and fair resolution.
What all of that means is that bishops have no stated rights to perform ministry outside of the bounds of the Book of Discipline and cannot take punitive action against others outside of the clearly defined complaint process.  It also means that bishops have no right to establish church law.  This is the sole responsibility of the General Conference.  Our Book of Discipline is very clear that no one can speak for The United Methodist Church except the body that establishes the provisions of our discipline – The General Conference.   This is the body that meets every four years and is represented by clergy & laity from each Annual Conference. Bishops have no voice or vote in these gatherings.  Their only function is to preside over the sessions.  This body, the General Conference, is the only established vehicle the church has to establish and change its laws, disciplines, and stances.
It is no secret that the General Conference has been consistent for the past forty years in saying that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching (¶161.f, 2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline.  As a result, some do not want to have any conversation about homosexuality, feeling that the church has made up its mind.  Others are frustrated because the General Conference votes to keep the same policies in spite of changing views.  Some applaud the position of the General Conference.  Others refuse to accept these decisions.  On all levels, the church is not of one mind on these matters.
In nearly every paragraph of this letter, I have acknowledged that there are divergent opinions about a very sensitive matter.  As a bishop of our church, I have and embrace the responsibility of supervision and the requirement of upholding our church’s discipline.  Yet, there are two additional statements in our Book of Discipline that I also embrace.  An additional role that I play as a bishop is found in Paragraph 403.1.e:  “The role of the bishop is to be the shepherd of the whole flock and thereby provide leadership toward the goal of understanding, reconciliation and unity within the Church.”  In addition, the Book of Discipline clearly states, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.”  (¶161.g)  Later in that same paragraph it states, “We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.  We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.  We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” 
Those sentences mean as much to me as any other stated responsibility I have as your leader.  They mean that I am a bishop of the whole church, no matter the theological preference or the sexual orientation.  It means that I am a bishop of those on both sides of this issue.  For me to side with one or the other means that I forsake my role and my passion to be a leader for all the people I am privileged to serve.
Beyond that, this commitment to being a leader of the church means that my heart breaks when our diverse church struggles to find its way in unity.  I love my church, our church, and long for us to find ways to love one another in the midst of and in spite of our differences. 

For that reason, I wanted to share this pastoral letter with you and invite you to join me in clearly and directly responding to this controversy with these actions:

  1. I invite you to join me in an intentional, daily, focused time of prayer each day during this season of Advent.  I believe that this is an essential practice in the midst of significant moments in the life of the church.  For me that prayer time will take place at 7:00 a.m. each morning.  The direction of my prayers will not be that we will have winners and losers in this debate or in any other issue we face.  My prayer is that we will find a way to love one another more intentionally, respect one another’s differing opinions more thoroughly, work together in the midst of disagreement with a commitment for unity, and maintain the focus necessary to fulfill our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”   I invite you to pray for our church, to pray for us as leaders of the church, and to pray that we will find Christ-like ways to resolve our differences and heal from our hurts. 
  2. I invite you to lead with a spirit of discernment rather than with judgment and personal opinion.  I have maintained for years that my leadership is most effective when I refrain from declaring my opinion and instead spend time inviting people into a time of mutual discernment and discovery.  Today you may have a very definitive viewpoint on this subject.  If you are a pastor, please do not use your pulpit as a platform for your opinion.  Do not use it as a place of judgment.  Rather, let us preach and teach in a way that invites others into the conversation, stimulates others to explore all sides of an issue, honors those on both sides of this delicate issue, and solicits the presence of the Holy Spirit to bring a peace that will surprise even us in the midst of difficult conversations.  If you are layperson, please carry a spirit of love and grace with you as you interact in our communities.  In each of our towns and cities there are persons who are violently opposed to homosexuality.  There are others who feel very uncomfortable interacting with persons of a different sexual orientation.  Yet, in each of our towns and cities there are also gays and lesbians who long for Christian community where they are welcomed and loved.   Everyone deserves the love and grace of Jesus Christ that our churches can provide. I believe that the Apostle Paul had it absolutely right when he said, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”  (I Corinthians 12:26-27) 
  3. I invite you into intentional times of discernment and conversation.  I am committing myself to hosting regular and ongoing conversations and studies on the subject of human sexuality in an effort to understand the issues on both sides more thoroughly, to deepen our respect and love for one another in the midst of those conversations, and to examine ways that God might lead us in a way that we cannot lead ourselves.  I invite you to do the same.  This is not a time for us to hide under a rock and hope that this subject will go away.  This subject is coming closer and closer to us every day.  And, if ignored, this subject could cause devastating consequences to the church that we love. 
I believe that these days can be our greatest time of Christian witness as a denomination.  Can we find a way to witness to the world that people who have such divergent opinions can find a way to love one another and work together in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord?  Can we offer to the world what might be a slice of heaven itself right here on earth, right here in The United Methodist Church?  Can we find a way to act so that the people of the 21st Century may say about us the same thing that the non-Christians of the 3rd Century said about the Christians of their day – “See how they love one another!”
Friends, I am not asking you to change your opinion and your personal convictions.  Our church is filled with many good people who love God and do all they can to love their neighbor in the spirit of Christ.  I know that good people of faith often disagree.  What I am asking you to do is pray, to lead with grace and sensitivity, and to listen with ears open to the thoughts and feelings of others.   
I love our church so very much and love each of you that I am privileged to serve more than I can express.  Join me won’t you, in this quest for a deeper love, a deeper understanding, and a deeper sense of unity among us.  Some will say that this is naïve, childlike, futile, maybe even impossible.  But Jesus one day looked at his doubting disciples and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but will God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)
How will we know if we do not try?  Join me, won’t you?
The Journey Continues, . . .

Thomas J. Bickerton
Resident Bishop


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