Students from the School of Theology presented a petition November 17 to Bishop Peter Weaver, the ranking bishop of the United Methodist Church’s New England Conference, requesting that the church reconsider recent rulings against gays and lesbians by its highest court. The rulings upheld the defrocking of a lesbian minister in Philadelphia and reinstated a Virginia pastor suspended for denying congregation membership to a gay man.
The petition urges the nation’s 65 active Methodist bishops to formally ask the church’s nine-member Judicial Council to reconsider its October rulings ousting Rev. Irene “Beth” Stroud and reinstating Rev. Ed Johnson. Council rulings are the final word on church doctrine for the Protestant denomination, the nation’s second largest, with 8.2 million members.
“This is rhetorical pressure,” Marsh Chapel Dean Robert Neville says of the petition presented to Weaver. At a time when church conservatives are battling efforts by liberals to be more welcoming toward homosexuals, Neville says, speaking out to make their viewpoints heard “certainly is important to our gay and lesbian students — and the future leaders of the church.”
Before the petitioning students met with the bishop, Neville presided over a midday Vigil for Intercession Eucharistic service on a windswept Marsh Plaza. Colorful vestments glistening in the sun, he led prayers and distributed communion to the more than 70 protestors circled around him. One wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, You Make Jesus Ugly.
“This petition is important to us because we need to know how the body of Christ can be whole if anyone is marginalized,” says third-year STH student Katherine Mitchell. “We’re calling out today to our church to include those who are marginalized.”
Earlier this month the national Council of Bishops unanimously approved a pastoral letter, distributed to all Methodist churches, which reads, in part: “While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier.” But the bishops stopped short of asking the Judicial Council to reconsider its decision in the Virginia case.
“The Virginia Council and the Bishops Council can ask for a review,” says Neville, “and I’m sure they will.”