Methodist church faces a divisive issue

America's second-largest Protestant denomination is hurting. At its 10-day quadrennial conference, the United Methodist Church took a firm stand on the issue that most divides it, but the outcome is unlikely to end the tumult that has beset the church over the past three years.

Amid a host of other issues, delegates to the Cleveland meeting resolved the long-standing debate over homosexuality by voting, by 2-to-1 margins, to reaffirm all church policies. And they rejected language that would have acknowledged a diversity of views within the church. The decisive actions, after emotional debate, left a deeply grieved minority. The question now is how local congregations and other church bodies will deal with the outcome and with a renewed push by gay-rights advocates.

Three Methodist pastors have already indicated their intent to go ahead with same-sex union ceremonies, which in the past have resulted in church trials. And Soulforce, an ecumenical group committed to civil disobedience in support of sexual minorities, has announced a four-year strategy leading up to the next Methodist general conference. The group will also press for change in June and July at meetings of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches.

Methodist policy says homosexuals are persons of sacred worth, but that the practice is incompatible with Christian teaching; and no practicing homosexual can be ordained. For the majority, the outcome confirms historical teachings. "I hope this gives us freedom to focus on ministry," says the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, of Wilmore, Ky. Mabel Cummings, member of a native American Methodist church in Prospect, N.C., says, "If the language had been repealed, many people would have left our church, or stopped giving money to it."

"I support the church's position," says the Rev. Jimmy Ormon from Brookhaven, Miss., but "it was gut-wrenching to hear how people's lives are affected."

One young gay delegate, whose father and grandfather are both Methodist pastors, and a delegate with a gay son reminded voters they were dealing with people's lives. Some ministers are particularly concerned. "As I return to my district, I'm keenly aware that the body is lacerated, and there will be a need for a lot of care and pastoral work," says the Rev. Linda Campbell-Marshall, of Hope, Maine. "One-third of our people are bleeding."

"This is between the law and the gospel," she adds. "I have an 18-year-old son, and sometimes I try to lay down the law when I should be communicating with him about how we can live together and work things out."

The most painful moment for the gathering came with the arrest and removal from the meeting of 29 church members, including two bishops, who moved to the stage to protest the key votes and refused to leave, singing instead, "We Shall Overcome." Some delegates on the floor and a couple hundred members in the balcony stood in support and a few wept. Members of a Methodist coalition called AMAR (Spanish for "to love"), the protesters vow to stay in the church and "try to raise awareness." They say this is essential because gay and lesbian children continue to be born and raised in the church.

AMAR was backed in its efforts by Soulforce, which mounted a rally and nonviolent protest outside the convention center before the voting in which almost 200, including clergy and civil rights leaders, were arrested.

The conference was a model of democratic lawmaking, with 992 delegates working patiently day and night on 1,600 resolutions. The church held a special session of repentance and apology for past racism, and committed itself to removing all vestiges of racism in the church and in society at large. J. Philip Wogaman, a pastor in Washington, D.C., wondered aloud if they wouldn't one day have to hold a similar service to apologize for their decisions on homosexuality.

But just as many in the minority remain convinced they eventually will win the day, many in the majority feel this is an issue "on which there can be no compromise." "Perhaps it is time for there to be two churches," says the Rev. Patricia Roseberry, a delegate from Mississippi.

Some seem ready for a split, but throughout the meeting, the emphasis was on preserving unity for what all agree is the common mission of making disciples for Christ. But preserving that unity, some say, will require a much deeper level of dialogue. "We need to humble ourselves and come to know one another," a speaker said.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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