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May 10, 2000 GC-054

Bishops voice optimism for church’s future

CLEVELAND (UMNS) – Despite demonstrations, disruptions and predictions that United Methodist Church might split, three bishops expressed hope and optimism for the denomination at a news conference May 10.

"I think we are focused on a point where our church is in disagreement," said Bishop Woodie White, who leads the church’s Indiana Area. "But there are many more issues where we are in agreement rather than in disagreement."

Those issues can be used to leverage strength as the church works toward understanding, the bishops said.

In addition to White, Bishop Kenneth Carder, Nashville (Tenn.) Area, and Mary Ann Swenson, Denver Area, attended the press conference. The bishops spoke with reporters against the backdrop of the 2000 General Conference, the United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly, which is meeting through May 12 in Cleveland.

While no subject was specified for the press conference, the bishops were peppered with questions about homosexual issues, which are a chief topic facing General Conference delegates.

All three bishops expressed their belief that the current struggle can create a stronger United Methodist Church.

"When I work with families where division threatens their existence together, it’s an opportunity for growth in the depth of their relationships," Carder said. Pain can be redemptive, he noted. "My hope is that through this pain we will come to a deeper commitment to what unifies us."

Swenson reflected on a past change in the denomination’s official statements about marriage. She noted that the church’s Book of Discipline once gave men a dominant role, but today both spouses are viewed as equals. Now, the bishop said, she agonizes with those who lament "How long, oh, Lord?" "I maintain the spirit of hope that this, too, will see a different day."

The key to handling the pain and struggle is to remain committed, open, in dialogue and of one heart, the bishops said.

"My hope on the issue of homosexuality is that our church would stay open as we come to one heart, even if we cannot come to one mind," White said.

It was difficult for the bishops to deal with homosexual issues without also putting them into a larger context.

Carder shared his experience while visiting a daycare center close to the Cleveland Convention Center, where General Conference is meeting. He asked a little girl what she liked best about being at the daycare center. She answered, "I feel safe here."

"That is my hope for the church," Carder said. No matter what a person’s circumstances, "I would want us (the church) to be a place where people can be safe."

One point on which the church agrees, according to Swenson, is the worth of individuals. "Our position as a church is that ALL persons are of sacred worth and are children of God," she said.

Looking broadly, Carder pointed out, "the church is damaged by irresponsible heterosexual behavior. … There is a whole range of behaviors which are incompatible with Christian teaching."

We need to recognize that the struggle is not about legislation but about people, said the bishops. "The more we see the persons rather than the issues, the more we have the opportunity to experience greater sensitivity and understanding," White pointed out.

Asked about differences of opinion in the Council of Bishops, Carder noted that the bishops have a covenant to uphold the Book of Discipline, but they are also committed to supporting each other in their differences of opinions.

"We have a role individually and corporately, and while they may seem in conflict, we are free to express our individual conscience. That’s part of our tradition," he said.

Each bishop at the news conference expressed a commitment to uphold the decisions of the General Conference as reflected in the Book of Discipline, while at the same time recognizing acts of conscience.

"With every expression of the faith done out of faithfulness, there has to be a willingness to suffer the consequences," Carder said.

The noon press conference followed an early morning peaceful act of civil disobedience led by the Soulforce coalition outside the convention center. Police arrested 185 people, including a bishop and his wife, for blocking an exit to the building in protest of the United Methodist Church’s anti-homosexual policies.

Soulforce is an interfaith coalition of people who engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to promote gay rights. White was on a team that met with Soulforce representatives May 8 to discuss the group’s presence at General Conference.

Chicago Area Bishop C. Joseph Sprague and his wife, Diane, were arrested for participating in the May 10 protest.

Swenson stood in support with the demonstrators but did not block the convention center exit in order to be arrested. Asked if she was going to be in any trouble when she got back home, she said, "I don’t know." She wanted to provide witness, however, as an act of conscience.

She said the action was in keeping with the teaching function of the church’s bishops. "It was faithful to the Discipline, to our doctrine and our full heritage – our Wesleyan DNA – and our becoming disciples."

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--Barbara Nissen

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