A pastor who denied church membership to a homosexual has been banished from the pulpit and denied his salary for one year by the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, despite the admission he acted on his conscience and his action could be defended “in theory” from the Methodist Book of Discipline.

Rev. Edward Johnson, former pastor of South Hill United Methodist Church for the past six years, will appeal his suspension to the denomination’s highest court in Houston in late October.

The action leading to the pastor’s “involuntary leave of absence” was initiated by Rev. W. Anthony Layman, retired district superintendent for Johnson’s region in rural Southside Virginia, following Johnson’s December refusal to allow a homosexual man to join his congregation.

Layman told United Methodist News Service he and other conference officials “did all we could do to help [Johnson] see the inconsistency of his stance in his ministry” before filing a complaint against him in April.

“I was trying to show him the church was open to receiving [the member],” Layman said. “He, in turn, relied on his interpretation of the scriptures.”

Layman’s complaint to a denominational board resulted in a recommended one-year suspension for Johnson. The Virginia Conference approved the recommendation for punishment on June 13 by a 418-114 vote, with eight abstentions.

“For me, this was the last recourse,” Layman said. “Johnson had two opportunities to receive the person into membership himself or allow the associate pastor to do it. He would do neither. It was this act of insubordination that put him on notice.”

“Our Social Creed says that we as a church would not ordain homosexuals, but they have the right to be received in membership,” Layman said. “The church supports homosexuals as part of the congregation and as persons of definite worth.

“Johnson has deep beliefs around this issue,” Layman said. “He is a man of integrity who is living out his conscience.”

The Methodist Book of Discipline directs congregations that membership cannot be denied to anyone based on “race, nationality, economic condition or status.” According to Carole Vaughn, director of communications for the Virginia Conference, Johnson could “in theory” use his own judgment in deciding whether “status” applied to homosexuals.

During the June disciplinary session, Bishop Charlene Kammerer was questioned as to whether it was lawful for a pastor to “receive into the membership of a local United Methodist church anyone who is able to receive the vow, affirm the vow and promises to fulfill the vow, and who, at the same time, acknowledges and impenitently practices homosexual relations?” She did not answer the question directly, but, according to the minutes, said the bishop and superintendents were charged with giving guidance, as they had done in Rev. Johnson’s case.

Kammerer also was asked if the language in the Book of Discipline gave “Johnson the right and responsibility to exercise responsible pastoral judgment in determining who may be received into church membership of a local church.” According to the minutes of the meeting, Kammerer ruled “negative in this case.”

By suspending Johnson, noted Vaughn, the church’s leaders were vetoing the pastor’s decision.

“In a layperson’s terms, it would be sort of like being temporarily suspended,” she said.

Gary Creamer, a member of Johnson’s South Hill church, is standing behind his former pastor and says many other members are as well.

“I feel Rev. Johnson was holding to biblical principle in denying membership to that individual,” Creamer told VaNCNews. “I feel extremely sad and grieved. I feel a terrible injustice was done.”

Creamer said the homosexual man at the center of the dispute had been attending the church for some time and sang in the choir.

“This person was never discouraged from coming to church. That would be un-Christian. However, actual membership would be another story,” he said.

“The church is not upholding the biblical principles outlined in Leviticus, 2 Timothy and Corinthians about homosexuality and the sins thereof,” he added.

“I cannot see how you can take Holy Communion and openly practice that lifestyle. The Bible says homosexuality is a sin. Now everybody sins, but we like to think that everybody who is a member of the United Methodist Church is attempting to repent of their sins. Openly practicing homosexuality is not an attempt to repent of sins, in my opinion.”

The decision to suspend Johnson was done without taking the local congregation into account, said Creamer.

“I just feel like the congregation as a whole was ignored,” he said. “I don’t think anyone had any idea of the gravity of what was going on.”

Bishop Kammerer confirmed Creamer’s complaint the congregation was excluded, saying clergy matters are not subject to local congregations’ input.

“He is accountable to the annual conference as a clergy member. He is not subject to any one local church,” she said. “As Rev. Johnson’s bishop, I wish he and his family well and pray for healing in the life of the congregation in South Hill.”

Johnson could, Kammerer says, be reinstated as a United Methodist pastor in good standing if he fulfills recommendations from the conference’s board of ordained ministry.

Kammerer, whose Virginia Conference is under the Southeast Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, chairs the committee that governs a North Carolina conference and retreat facility slated for a four-day pro-homosexuality rally over Labor Day weekend, organized by the group Reconciling Congregations.

According to conservative Methodist activist Mark Tooley, one forum will “explore the development of transgender and gender queer spirituality” as well as the “sources of gendering.” Participants are encouraged to “come with a robust interest in all things gender, whether or not they themselves are gender non-normative.”

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