Maine diocese withdraws from Council of Churches

Bishop Robert P. Deeley of Portland, Maine, pictured in a 2012 photo (CNS photo/G regory L. Tracy, The Pilot). Bishop Robert P. Deeley of Portland, Maine, pictured in a 2012 photo (CNS photo/G regory L. Tracy, The Pilot). 

When a gunman killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub popular with the L.G.B.T. community in 2016, some members of the Maine Council of Churches wanted to issue a statement expressing support for the victims and calling for an end to homophobia. But because of an unwritten rule that required unanimous consent from members before issuing any public statements, which had stopped the council in the past from expressing support for same-sex marriage despite most of the member churches supporting it, there was trepidation about what kind of language they should use.

Eventually, the group did release a statement, but in it they tried to “walk the line” between signaling support for L.G.B.T. rights and condemning violence against the community, the group’s leader, the Rev. Jane Field, told America, upsetting some members who resented needing to be so cautious in their language at a time when the L.G.B.T. community was grieving.

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“We realized that we were feeling unsure of ourselves, of what would be O.K. for us to say publicly and what would offend or contradict what our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters would want the council to be saying publicly,” Ms. Field said. “That felt like a tipping point for me personally, where a number of our representatives said, ‘This can’t go on like this anymore.’”

“Our continuing participation could result in me advocating for two different, and even contradictory, positions,” Bishop Deeley wrote.

That is when the group launched what would become a 20-month process of updating its rules about what to say publicly. In February, the council decided it would issue public statements based on a majority vote of its members rather than following an unwritten rule that required unanimous consent. That change left Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland, the only diocese in Maine, uneasy, afraid that he would be part of a group whose public positions contradicted the Catholic Church’s views.

He decided the diocese would withdraw its membership, which dated back to the 1980s.

In a letter sent to the president of the council, Bishop Robert Deeley said the Diocese of Portland would withdraw its membership next month.

“As the Bishop of the Diocese I find this unfortunate, but I see no alternative. Our continuing participation could result in me advocating for two different, and even contradictory, positions,” Bishop Deeley wrote in a letter dated April 23. “What I advocate for cannot be simply determined by a majority vote. It is expected that my advocacy is grounded in the teachings of the Church. Any other position would be contrary to my responsibility as the bishop of Portland.”

As it turned out, shortly after the new rules went into effect the Maine Council of Churches took a public stand on an issue on which the Catholic diocese did not agree.

Earlier this year, lawmakers in Maine considered a bill that would ban so-called conversion therapy, a controversial practice that claims to be able to change an individual’s sexual orientation. (The bill was introduced by State Representative Ryan Fecteau, a graduate of the Catholic University of America who was the first openly gay student to serve as president of the student general assembly.)

While the Catholic Church does not have an official stance on this kind of therapy, the Diocese of Portland testified against the ban, saying the bill “limits choice” and interferes in the relationship between licensed counselors and patients.

But the Maine Council of Churches supported the ban, submitting written testimony that it again made public in a letter to The Portland Press Herald in March, in which Ms. Field noted that many Christian denominations are against the practice, quoting the group’s statement to lawmakers during the debate.

“Sexual orientation and gender identity are a gift from God—not a condition that needs treatment, not a choice that needs conversion, not something broken that needs repair, not a sin that needs forgiveness,” the letter states, quoting the testimony. “Conversion therapy is psychological and spiritual malpractice and amounts to torture.”

(The letter does make clear, however, that the testimony was offered on behalf of its seven denomination members that have come out against conversion therapy. The Catholic Church was not listed and Ms. Field said several times that the timing of the conversion therapy debate was coincidental and was not the reason the diocese withdrew its membership. The law banning the therapy passed in the Maine House of Representatives in April.)

Emails and a call to the Diocese of Portland were not returned on Thursday.

Bishop Deeley is not alone in his decision to withdraw his diocese from membership in state-level Council of Churches.

Catholic participation in Councils of Churches, which exist at the local, national and international levels, is rare.

In 2013, the bishops of the Diocese of Raleigh and the Diocese of Charlotte announced that they would both withdraw from the North Carolina Council of Churches. Like Bishop Deeley, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and Bishop Peter J. Jugis said that some public statements from the group implied that the two Catholic leaders were in agreement “with positions that are at times in contradiction with their practice and the teaching of their faith.” A 2013 article from Catholic News Service notes that the decision was based on the council’s support for same-sex marriage and its neutral stance on abortion, both of which the Catholic Church opposes. More recently, the Diocese of Manchester withdrew from the New Hampshire Council of Churches.

Catholic participation in Councils of Churches, which exist at the local, national and international levels, is rare.

The World Council of Churches was founded in the 1940s, and the Catholic Church has never sought membership, in part because the Catholic Church has historically considered itself to be the only authentic Christian church. But since the 1960s, Catholic leaders have met annually with the W.C.C., and Pope Francis is expected to meet with representatives from the council in Geneva next month to commemorate the group’s 70th anniversary.

Only a small number of Catholic dioceses in the United States are members of state councils, though others, such as Catholic dioceses in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, operate as partners or observers rather than as full members. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is listed as a partner on the website of the National Council of Churches.

Still, Catholic bishops maintain a national office of ecumenical affairs and many dioceses employ staff devoted to ecumenical efforts. In 2004, U.S. bishops joinedChristian Churches Together in the U.S.A., an ecumenical group they helped create in 2001 to bring together representatives from all major Christian traditions. Unlike the National Council of Churches, this group appears to shy away from statements about contentious social issues, focusing on dialogue among members and on issues on which most churches largely agree.

In his letter, Bishop Deeley thanked the Maine Council of Churches for its “continuing witness to the truth of our faith in our community” and said the decision to withdraw was not made “lightly or happily” He added, “Our corporate religious witness in a secular society has been a value to the people of Maine.”

As for Ms. Field, she said she respects the diocese’s decision to leave rather than be put in a position that makes them feel they are compromising their values. She sent a letter to Bishop Deeley immediately after she was notified that the Diocese of Portland was leaving the Maine council. She thanked him for the diocese’s past involvement and let him know that the door is always open for future collaboration.

“There is plenty of common ground that we still stand on, like poverty, hunger, human trafficking and climate change,” she said.

“We take seriously the Gospel teaching to love one another and we are earnestly seeking a way to be in relationship,” she said. “That’s my prayer and my hope.”

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Tim Donovan
2 months 2 weeks ago

As a gay Catholic, I 'm appalled by violence against other gay people. However, I do believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. I agree with Bishop Deeley-s unfortunate but necessary decision to withdraw his diocese from the Maine Council of Churches. I know and respect peo ole of many different faiths: Protestants of different denominations (including my sister-in-law and niece who are Presbyterians who I of course love) and some Muslims and Jews. It's a shame that the Maine Council of Churches favors same-sex marriage. Although the National Council of Churches technically is "neutral" regarding the violence of legal abortion, most of the member churches favor the extreme position of the 1973_U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions. These decisions legalized abortion for any reason up until the unborn infant is viable. In 2006, Rev. Bob Edgar, who at the time was the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, said that Jesus never said anything about abortion as it's_justification. Of course, there are many matters that Jesus is not recorded as having taken a position on, including capital punishment. (Rev. Edgar from 1974-1986 was my Congressman, and while he asserted that he was personally opposed to abortion in most circumstances, was a vehement supporter of legal abortion for any reason, as well as federal funding of abortion. How sad.

Phillip Stone
2 months 1 week ago

Oops!

Tim O'Leary
2 months 2 weeks ago

Wait a minute? Isn't sex altering surgery a form of conversion therapy? Surgical and chemical castration seems more like torture than talking to someone about their deep seated feelings. Just because a person might ask for these things doesn't change the responsibility of the doctor in the process. No rigorous scientific studies have shown that these methods are medically useful. Suicide rates are sky high before and after.

As to Bishop Deeley's decision, it was of course the right one, since majority rule is no sure way to get to the truth (witness the catastrophe in Ireland's removal of protection for the unborn last week), and the Catholic Church will cease to be if it abandons the truth.

I am not enamored about these supra-Church coalitions in any case. Sooner or later, the societal mission takes precedence over the evangelical mission, as it has done in most mainline Protestant churches already. This journal has rightly condemned the violation of human rights in Ireland. But, all these mainline Protestant Churches have already endorsed this crime against humanity.

Phillip Stone
2 months 1 week ago

Well said, Tim O'Leary.

Phillip Stone
2 months 1 week ago

Thus ends another social experiment which has some lessons to teach for those ready to learn by experience.
I applaud the apostolic decision as courageous and correct.

God created humankind in His image and likeness inasmuch as we exist, can know and love and choose between good actions and evil actions and do works.
Unlike other mammals, human infants are outstanding in the endowment of enormous brain power and only basic automatic and instinctual embedded capacities. (Think supercomputer, minimal BIOS and huge plastic programmability)
Parenting by the biological father and the biological mother within the context of a supportive community is the optimal condition for good enough nurture.
We are born with a capacity to perceive, a capacity to move and crawl and walk and run and jump, a capacity to speak and understand speech and a capacity to eventually function as a gendered person.
All of these are potentialities and all of these can partially or completely fail.
I will leave wiser heads to tell me if they were able to fail before the Fall or only as a consequence.

It is up to the family and the community to teach language and motor skills as well as customs and manners while laying the groundwork of their moral conscience. Part of that is to aid the small percentage of children who are poor at some aspects of maturation and that has particularly been in gender identification.
It has traditionally been done by differences in behaviour and attitude to little boys (identified as having testes and a penis) and little girls identified as having a vulva in the same location.
Most boys and girls get to match their biological sex and their gender roles IN THE REPRODUCTIVE AREAS and those who have delay or difficulty need the input of the community.
Remember, a person can be a brilliant teacher and still have plenty of students who leave his tutilage as ignorant fools. He did not fail, they did either through some fault of their own or some defect over which they had no control.
In this fallen world, there are flaws in some people at every stage of the growth and maturation period and this results in death or deformity or abnormality.
Additionally, hurt and harm at every stage of development may add damage to the process in the growing period and I specifically include late adolescence and early adulthood (Christendom discerned 21st year to be the average age of full adult person-hood and citizenship).

To the current possessors and advocates of the cultural Marxist zeitgeist, the above is politically incorrect and heresy.

Henry George
2 months 1 week ago

Why is the Church aligned with the WCC when it has gone
overboard with remaining relevant to our increasingly
secular - agnostic/athiestic culture ?

I don't know if I am more amazed by what a few bishops have done
or by the Supreme Court's ruling on Marriage Cakes...

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