United Methodists divided in discussing homosexuality

More than 1,000 delegates gathered for the United Methodist Church (UMC) General Conference held in Tampa, Fla., last week. This gathering takes place every four years and this year’s conference is made up with some 40 percent of the delegates coming from outside the United States. The assembly grappled with petitions endorsed by the UMC Council of Bishops that addressed the restructuring of general agencies, folding the denomination’s ecumenical agency in the Council of Bishops, as well as establishing a full-time council president without the usual responsibilities of overseeing a geographical area.

UMC Bishop Larry Goodpaster challenged bishops of his denomination to embody the peace of Christ to the 2012 conference in the midst of an anxious denomination.

On April 25 the bishops presided over small-group “holy conversations” among the delegates discussing Methodist theology and human sexuality. Philadelphia Bishop Peggy Johnson described these sessions as being imbued with “inclusiveness, a listening ear, forgiveness and understanding. United Methodists had the kind of holy conferencing John Wesley desired.”

None of the topics discussed at the UMC General Conference garnered more attention and acrimony as the discussions surrounding homosexuality. The homosexuality debate dates to 1972, when a phrase calling homosexual activity “incompatible with Christian teaching” was added to the Book of Discipline, which contains the denomination’s laws and doctrines. The UMC also bans noncelibate gay clergy and same-sex marriage. The UMC has experienced a dramatic drop in membership here in the United States over the past few decades. Those advocating greater rights for homosexuals in the UMC contend that the denomination must be more inclusive in order to attract young Americans to the denomination. Conservative UMC members counter that only denominations that hold fast to traditional doctrines concerning sexuality are growing.

The UMC supports the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman and requires clergy members to adhere to “the highest standards of holy living.” According to the denomination, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained ministers or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.”

United Methodists who advocate greater rights in their denomination for gay members proposed about 100 resolutions this year that would lift the bans on homosexuality found in the UMC Book of Discipline. None of these were adopted.

Those advocating greater acceptance of gay rights in the UMC were sorely disappointed at the General Conference this year. “After the holy conversations yesterday, there were a number of people who felt abused in what we believe was intended to be a truly holy conversation space. But, for whatever reason, in many, many of the rooms, that was not borne out, and delegates and observers were bullied and met with derision and scorn,” said Marla Marcum of Lexington, Mass., one of the delegates.

The limited amount of time given for the holy conversations contributed to the problem according to observers. Bishop Sally Dyck of Minnesota said, it hurts me that people were hurt. It is an issue that just truly seems to fracture the church and that’s why we wanted to have some time of holy conferencing.”

Many of mainline Protestant churches have been painfully grappling with the place and rights of their homosexual members for the past couple of decades.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is coordinator, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.

Categories: That All May Be One

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