You might expect that after five decades as a pastor, the Rev. Gene Errickson would prefer to remove his clerical collar and relax.
But Errickson, who observed the 50th anniversary of his ordination at a service this past Sunday at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Paradise, has no intention of stepping away from the issues that confront the church today.
Originally ordained a Catholic priest, Errickson later served in drug and alcohol addiction programs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In 2004, he was appointed a pastor in the United Methodist Church, serving congregations in Jackson Township and Neptune, New Jersey before stepping in as an interim pastor at St. John’s in Paradise in 2011. That interim position is now in its ninth year.
In recent years, the issue of whether to allow pastors to officiate at same-sex marriages or ordain gay or lesbian preachers has caused a split among United Methodist churches.
Earlier this year, the church’s General Council approved the Traditional Plan that continues those bans and enforces the prohibitions against pastors who violate the rules in the denomination’s Book of Discipline.
Progressive pastors contend the rules are discriminatory. Some churches are weighing whether to leave the denomination.
Errickson does not view the Traditional Plan as either discriminatory or exclusionary. While the United Methodist Church always has accepted people regardless of sexual orientation, he worries that the rhetoric accompanying the Traditional Plan may drive LGBT members from the United Methodist fold.
To encourage them to stay, he is developing what he calls Christian living guidelines modeled after the Catholic Church’s “Courage Apostolate” program to support LGBT people.
The Courage program specifically cites chastity in same-sex relationships. Errickson said while he would prefer that gays be “chaste,” he believes it is unreasonable to ask people in a monogamous relationship to refrain from having sex. Instead, his desire is to encourage LGBT people to focus on being faithful to one’s spouse and to grow in one’s spiritual faith.
“The part that God created us in his own image is our spirit and that’s what we have to focus on,” Errickson said. “(It’s) not changing how somebody is externally, not to change their sexual disposition. We need to cooperate with God in developing our spirit.”
The guidelines, he said, are aimed at helping people “grow in their love for Christ by coming to a really deep-down appreciation of who they are.”
He has spoken briefly about his guidelines with Bishop Peggy Johnson, who heads the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.
In an email, Johnson wrote that while she has not studied Errickson’s plan, his desire to have LGBT people remain faithful to their spouse and to remain members fits with the church’s views.
“The part ... about faithfulness in gay marriage would be in sync with our polity as we don’t allow gay weddings and state that the ‘practice’ of gay sex is incompatible with Christian teaching. We are all about being ‘welcoming’ as a denomination. We draw the line on marriage.”
Whether Errickson’s guidelines can be tailored to mesh with United Methodist theology is a different question.
Darryl Stephens, director of United Methodist Studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary, wrote in an email that the Courage program is a “spiritual practice of reparation ... in which the believer may do spiritual works in order to repair the sins of self and others. Protestants generally reject this kind of spirituality as a form of works-righteousness.”
He added that the Catholic Church views “homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,” and that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”
“They are contrary to the natural law,” Stephens said. “They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.”
He said the United Methodist Church “does not base its theology on natural law and does not consider sexual acts ‘intrinsically disordered’ if they do not allow for the possibility of procreation.”
While the United Methodist Church “does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching,” Stephens wrote, “neither of these statements in the Social Principles (a document that is not considered doctrinally authoritative) provides any theological rationale.
“In short,” he wrote, “United Methodists do not have a theology of sexuality — we only have prohibitions and assertions.”
He added that if Errickson’s plan is largely focused on people remaining faithful to their partners and not about remaining chaste, Stephens noted, why single out LGBT persons?
“There are many more heterosexual couples that break their vow of fidelity that could use a support group to encourage faithfulness,” Stephens wrote.
Errickson said he sees his proposal as a way for LGBT people to create support groups within the church.
“I think the more important thing here is that you are accepted for who you are and not for what you do,” he said.