United Methodists from around the world are poised to set global policy on one of the most divisive issues facing Christianity today: How far should churches go in accepting homosexuality?
After more than 25 years of debate, the Methodists will vote at a conference this week on whether to change the church's stance on homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching. Two other mainline Christian churches - Presbyterian and Episcopal - will take up the issue this summer.
Those on both sides of the debate are aware that the decisions not only will affect the future of their denominations, but are likely to reverberate throughout society, given religion's role in shaping cultural norms. At the turn of the millennium, "It is clear that no single practice - and the theory or law behind it - troubles religious groups more than this," says theologian and author Martin Marty.
While mainline churches have struggled with the issue for years, it is now reaching a decisive moment.
One reason is simply the calendar: Several major denominations are holding conferences this summer that convene only every three or four years.
Another is the gathering momentum of the gay-rights movement in many segments of society, including state legislatures and the courts. Within churches themselves, members of the clergy, bishops, and congregations have taken public stands in defiance of orthodoxy on homosexuality - forcing the governing bodies to confront the issue.
Protests at the meeting
An interfaith advocacy group called Soulforce was staging protests at the Methodist conference in Cleveland yesterday to urge church leaders "to end their 'holy war' against sexual minorities." Leaders from the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi are also joining in the nonviolent action.
Delegates will vote on several topics, including whether homosexuality is incompatible with Scripture, and whether the current prohibitions against same-sex unions and ordination of homosexuals should continue. Already, earlier this week, delegates rejected a proposal to require pastors to sign, in effect, a "loyalty oath" to follow the church's decisions.
The internal turmoil in the denominations has continued to grow. Methodist clergy, for instance, have been put on trial for presiding over same-sex unions. Some unions and ordinations have also been conducted in Episcopal dioceses, leading to dissension within the church.
Some Anglican leaders in the developing world in January signaled their outrage by taking an unprecedented step: They consecrated two conservative American priests as "missionary bishops" to help remedy the situation.
Views in the churches range widely, but the main split is between conservatives, who feel the authority of the Bible is at stake, and liberals, who say scriptural references are misunderstood and homosexuals deserve "full participation in God's house."
Conservatives, says the Rev. James Heidinger, executive director of Good News, say current policy is "compassionate and faithful to Scripture and church tradition." Along with the prohibitions, the church does commit to "being in ministry with all people," supports basic rights and civil liberties for homosexuals, and condemns violence against them.
On the other side is the Rev. Tex Sample, professor emeritus at St. Paul School of Theology, who served on a committee that carried out a four-year study on homosexuality and edited a new book on the subject. He now supports eliminating the prohibitions, allowing even same-sex marriage.
"My position changed when I began to know gay and lesbian people who were vitally alive Christians who were enormously covenanted in their relationship," says Mr. Sample. "I'm a traditionalist. I don't believe in casual sex. The tradition of the church is one of marriage."
The greatest impetus behind the effort to change policy comes from the anguish of homosexuals of faith who want to practice fully in a church home. They say God has created them as they are, and some have felt a call to ministry. But many have experienced constant rejection, and this has sometimes led to suicide. They see religious policies as contributing to an atmosphere that allows homophobia.
To encourage greater acceptance in Methodism, activists formed the Reconciling Congregations Program (RCP), which helps congregations become "fully inclusive."
Small rejections, some say, can build a sense of isolation. Marilyn Alexander, who heads RCP, says a woman who called her recently thought she'd finally found a church home, "only to be told that a church committee had voted that she could not read Scripture on Sunday."
But society has changed a lot recently, she says. "Look at the Vermont decisions [which allowed same-sex "civil unions"]. Matthew Shepard's death raised awareness about the hatred out there, and the importance of the church taking a positive stand."
Others, however, view it as a mistake to accept homosexuality as inevitable. Jim Gentile formed Transforming Congregations in response to RCP, after his own shift (over a 10-year period) from gay life to marriage. He sees Scripture as the inspired word, and he works to help people leave homosexuality through a Christian experience.
Mr. Gentile says he has been happily married for 19 years, and "has counseled hundreds of others.... About 50 percent succeed.."
Moderates in the middle
With heart-felt positions on both sides, it's the delegates in the middle who are in the most difficult position. Sample says that maybe 30 percent would take a strong conservative position and about 20 percent would side with liberals, leaving moderates to make up the remainder.
"I have believed for a long time that the majority [at the last conference] did not support the church position," he adds, "but voted to keep the proscriptive language because they were fearful of a split or mass defections."
"Many have told me they'd just like to see the language dropped," he says.
Another factor weighing on the side of the status quo in many denominations is the firm stand taken against change by church leaders in the developing world, where most faiths are seeing the greatest growth.
The most vivid example was the 1998 conference of the worldwide Anglican Communion, where homosexuality was declared "contrary to Scripture" and positions of the liberal US Episcopal clergy were overwhelmingly rejected.
The Episcopal Church holds its conference in July in Denver.
The Presbyterian Church will hold its meeting in June in Long Beach, Calif. A conservative Presbyterian minister has caused a stir nationally by submitting proposals that invite liberals to leave the denomination, but be allowed to take their church property with them.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society