NORRISTOWN At the urging of gay rights activists, United Methodist Bishop Peggy Johnson said Tuesday that some policies in the church's book of discipline are discriminatory toward homosexuals.
Johnson, who oversees the church's eastern Pennsylvania Conference, said bans on ordaining homosexuals and performing same-sex weddings contradict other church doctrines that call for the inclusion of people of all sexual orientations.
"This has led to confusion by many from the outside of the church," Johnson said in a statement, "wondering how we can talk out of two sides of our mouths."
The Rev. Herb Snyder of Philadelphia's Arch Street United Methodist Church, who along with more than 40 other ministers on Monday presented Johnson with a petition asking her to acknowledge discrimination in the church's laws, called it a historic moment.
"This is a big step nationally," Snyder said. "She has taken a giant step forward, and most conferences throughout the United States and Africa and worldwide would not go this far."
The petition was presented as the Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, Pa., announced Monday that he would not voluntarily relinquish his ministerial credentials, defying the sentence imposed by a jury that last month found him guilty of breaking church law by officiating at his gay son's wedding.
Johnson's statement Tuesday came one day after her office issued a similar news release that said the book of discipline could be seen as discriminatory "if construed as prohibitions against persons rather than practices" the church finds objectionable.
"The discipline is intended to be clear and fair," Johnson wrote, "although, admittedly, is not a perfect document."
On Tuesday, Johnson's office said she had reconsidered that statement, wished to withdraw it, and was issuing the second statement, which included stronger language about discrimination in the church.
In Tuesday's statement, Johnson also said church trials were "not helpful" and take "time, resources, and energy that could be better used for the ministry of the church." The first statement included similar language, but Johnson had also said she would uphold her vow to follow due process in church law.
The petitioners had asked Johnson to stop holding trials while the church grapples with the divisive issue of gay marriage.
On Thursday, Schaefer is scheduled to meet with a board of pastors at the Norristown offices of the church's eastern Pennsylvania Conference, who could defrock him or let him continue to minister.