Evangelicals respond to Mississippi controversy

Mississippi United Methodists are still reeling from the controversial testimony of a lesbian couple during a planned worship service at the June 12 Annual Conference session. The presentation by the two women was reported in both newspaper and television reports. It has been widely viewed on the Annual Conference website, as well as YouTube.

“We have no doubt that God embraces who we are and blesses our relationship,” the women told the Annual Conference worship service, “that God’s doors are open even when the churches’ doors sometimes aren’t.”

In the wake of the controversy, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward has held meetings with concerned clergy, stating that she would uphold the Book of Discipline’s stance on homosexuality, and pledged that a same-sex witness in a worship service would not be repeated. In the flurry of statements being issued and meetings being convened, many evangelicals find themselves frustrated and disappointed that an apology has still not been issued.

Shortly after the Annual Conference, the Mississippi Fellowship of United Methodist Evangelicals (MSFUME) issued a statement pointing out that the presentation “during the worship service appeared to condone and even commend a sexual activity that the UM Book of Discipline deems ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’” They believe that “great harm” was done at the event because “many people were blindsided by this disregard for the Bible and our Discipline.” The group also expressed regret that the two women who testified “and others in the gay and lesbian community could mistake as condemnation the vigorous call to our leaders to uphold church teachings.”

In their statement, MSFUME protested that the “witness” was presented in the context of a worship service—allowing “no recourse to those who strongly object to this unbiblical witness.” Although the evangelicals welcomed Bishop Ward’s pledge to uphold the Discipline, they point out that “she did not explain how the lesbians’ testimony during worship could be interpreted as support for the position of the Discipline.” In response by some to abandon the denomination over the controversy, the evangelical renewal group urged church members to remain in the UM Church and called for a Day of Prayer and Fasting on July 29.

On July 21, retired Bishop Clay Lee convened a meeting between Bishop Ward and the Mississippi delegation to General Conference. That group issued a statement acknowledging that Bishop Ward “was not involved in the planning of this worship service. There was no conspiracy to change or attempt to change the United Methodist Church’s position or influence the vote on the Constitutional Amendments.”

The delegates testified that the “worship service was planned by a worship committee of the Annual Conference as is our tradition” and that the “placement of these witnesses was not appropriate in the worship service.” The statement concluded by affirming both the bishop and the United Methodist stance on homosexuality.

For her part, Bishop Ward issued a second pastoral letter. “In our most recent time together, I received with you the gifts of the planning teams for each of the worship services at Annual Conference,” she wrote. “On Friday night, I heard personal stories when you heard them. They were not pre-read or approved. The intent was not to challenge or defy the Discipline. The intent was to lift up the conference theme of Biblical doors and to expand our desire and energy to reach out to persons God loves who are often beyond our churches. The expansiveness of the gathered assembly and the reality of the internet increased the potential for controversy. I deeply regret the chaos that has arisen among us.”

This was not what the evangelical renewal group was hoping for or expecting.

Three of the members of the evangelical renewal group also signed the General Conference delegate statement with the understanding that Bishop Ward “would issue a letter taking responsibility for the testimony that was presented.” That is an action they believe she has yet to accomplish. The Revs. Ginger Holland and Mike Childs, as well as layperson Anne Harrington found the bishop’s statement inadequate and described themselves as “deeply saddened when Bishop Ward’s only expressed regret…was over ‘the chaos that has arisen among us.’”

By Steve Beard, editor of Good News.

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