NEW YORK Policy-makers for America's third-largest religion, the United Methodist Church, meet Tuesday in Cleveland, where they will make crucial decisions on homosexuality an issue so divisive that there is talk of schism.
Over the past few years, the church has been wracked by disputes over whether and how to stop liberal members of the clergy from presiding at wedding-style ceremonies for gay couples in defiance of Methodist policy.
The church, which has 8.4 million U.S. members and 1.2 million overseas, holds a General Conference every four years, and each session since 1972 has taken up the issue of homosexuality. But observers think this eighth time could be the watershed. The meeting runs through May 12, and most legislative action is expected next week.
"After this General Conference, someone will be leaving the denomination," predicted the Rev. Gregory Dell of Chicago's In All Things Charity, who coordinates a coalition that wants Methodism to accept homosexuality and thinks this conference will adopt that view.
Good News magazine, on the opposite side of the issue, sent delegates a video raising the possibility of "a church split or substantial defection of members, churches and clergy."
The Rev. James Heidinger, president of the Wilmore, Ky.-based magazine, said many of the 992 delegates "don't see any resolution on this issue that's tearing away at the fabric of the church. Neither do we."
A 1968 merger created the United Methodist Church. In 1972, delegates inserted this statement in the faith's Book of Discipline: "We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."
Since then, denominational agencies, seminary professors, clergy and local units have worked to remove that language, so far without success.
The 1984 General Conference barred "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" in the clergy, and the 1996 session said Methodists cannot conduct "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions," a policy affirmed as church law in 1998 by the Methodists' high court.
Things escalated in February when a California church tribunal decided to take no action against 68 clergy members who conducted a lesbian union rite last year. Two weeks ago, conservatives filed charges against California Bishop Melvin Talbert, who said local Methodists' commitment to "inclusiveness and justice" takes priority over national church law.
While the 68 Californians were acquitted, Dell is on suspension for holding a homosexual ceremony, and Nebraska minister Jimmy Creech was defrocked.
Patricia Miller, executive director of the conservative Confessing Movement, said the California acquittal "has effectively forced schism in the church" unless the conference acts decisively to enforce policy.
The Rev. Jeanne Knepper of Affirmation, a Methodist group focusing on gay and bisexual concerns, said it doesn't matter what the conference enacts so long as local units have the power to decide on clergy discipline.
Gay activists plan classes, rallies, worship services and civil disobedience during a May 10 visit of Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, the world leader of Anglican Christians, who favors traditional sexual morals.
The conference will take up 1,900 pieces of legislation in all, including financial and organizational matters...
The denomination has 36,170 U.S. congregations, at least one in nearly every county.
As she headed to the United Methodist Church's General Conference, which starts Tuesday in Cleveland, Alicia Dean was sure she was heeding God's call.
"I am a lesbian trying to do ministry in a church that does not want me here," said Ms. Dean, minister of Christian education at Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas.
She said she hopes to persuade delegates to change church policy on gay marriage, a rancorous debate that could split the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination.
But others - including most of the convention's 992 delegates - say they find God's will in the denomination's current position, which bans same-sex unions and prohibits practicing gays and lesbians from serving as clergy.
Since 1972, Methodist rules have expressly condemned the practice of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching, though church policy welcomes gays and lesbians in its congregations.
The conference, conducted every four years, will work through a long list of religious and social issues, including how to help Methodists affected by natural disasters and wars; how to reshape the denomination's structure; and whether to spend $20 million on its first television ad campaign.
It is expected to elect North Texas Bishop William B. Oden as the president of its Council of Bishops.
But the marquee topic of the two-week meeting is same-sex marriage.
"This is an important issue for the church because it is an important issue in the culture," said Bishop Oden, who is not in favor of changing church policy and calls other issues more important.
People on both sides say the debate already has created two mini-denominations within the larger church structure. And even if legal issues make it difficult for the sides to split formally, those who feel most strongly about the issue may be destined to drift further apart.
"For many Christians, this is the line in the sand - on either side," said Dr. Bill Leonard, a Baptist historian and the dean of the seminary at Wake Forest University.
The debate over same-sex unions is personal for Ms. Dean, who led Northaven's effort to publish a series of essays by Methodist theologians and laity on how they fit acceptance of committed gay love into their understanding of Christianity.
The book, sent to each convention delegate, resulted from a vivid dream she had last year in which she saw a crowd of people walking into a meeting, each carrying the same book.
"It seemed clear to me that it was a God thing," said Ms. Dean, who ministers to one of North Texas' four "reconciling" congregations, which support full acceptance of gays and lesbian in church life.
Despite heavy lobbying, partisans on both sides say there are not enough votes to change church policy, either for blessing gay marriages or further restricting gays' role in the church.
"I think the church ought to be where it is," said Dr. Thalia Matherson, executive director of the south-central jurisdiction of the North Texas conference and one of 12 North Texas delegates to the national convention. Nearly half a million Methodists live in Texas.
The denomination had more than 10 million U.S. members in 1968, when it was created in Dallas by a merger of several smaller like-minded denominations.
Now - with 8.4 million members in the United States and 1.2 million elsewhere - the denomination is one of many religious groups struggling with a faith-based response to homosexuality.
In April, the rabbis of Reform Judaism ended years of debate by approving same-sex marriage ceremonies. Later this year, the Episcopalians and Presbyterians will consider gay issues at their conventions.
Last year, the Vatican shut down a 22-year-old New Jersey ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics, and the Southern Baptist Convention passed several resolutions reaffirming its condemnation of homosexuality.
Methodist officials have sent mixed signals. Last year, one pastor was defrocked in a highly publicized trial for performing a gay wedding ceremony, but this year Methodist investigators chose not to press charges against 68 clergy who had performed a joint same-sex ceremony.
Some say gay marriage is just the issue of the day for the churches and society. Last Wednesday, Vermont made civil same-sex unions legal in that state.
American Christianity periodically chooses sides over major issues. Slavery, mission work, ecumenism and divorce have divided denominations during the last 200 years, said the Rev. Lyle Schaller, a consultant on church growth and a Methodist.
"Now we're in the early stages of the churches rethinking what we traditionally call marriage," he said. "What do Christians like to do? Choose up sides and fight.
"It doesn't matter a whole lot to the people in the pews unless the pastor is interested in choosing up sides."
What may be different about the church debates over gay issues this year, said Dr. Leonard and others, is that the public level of anger has diminished, even if the passion has not.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell's meeting last October that gathered 200 evangelicals and 200 gay-rights activists may be the best-publicized effort to reduce the rancor.
For the Methodists in 2000, "I sense a calm over our conference," Bishop Oden said.
For instance, the book produced by Northaven and a debate conducted earlier this year at Southern Methodist University - videotaped and distributed to the conference delegates and others - were measured in tone and language.
The toned-down rhetoric may be linked to two things, some say. One is the number of recent violent attacks on gays that horrified even those who do not support acceptance of homosexuality. The other is the increasing number of people who believe that homosexuality is a sin but know a close friend or relative who has come out of the closet.
"People who have had very painful experiences are coming forward with great visibility," Bishop Oden said. "It affects a great number of families."
Even with the reduced tension, some say, this is an issue that can split a denomination. Perhaps the split won't be formal, because of the difficulty of dividing property and untangling insurance and pension funds. But there are already two increasingly distinct unofficial Methodist church bodies, said Dr. Matherson, the delegate from North Texas.
"I believe that has already occurred," she said.
She and those on the other side agree that this year's debate won't alter policy. That doesn't mean that nothing will happen, said the Rev. John Thornburg, Northaven's pastor.
His church has distributed 1,500 free copies of its book, sold another 1,000 and has had about 1,700 visitors to the text posted on its Web site, www.northaven.org.
"Every time the church gathers and goes through this process of debate, even if it's gut-churning for us, we do learn something about ourselves and our brothers and sisters," he said. "A mature church is a church confident enough to engage in debate."
As leaders of the United Methodist Church headed toward a showdown this week over the role of gays in the church, there was little doubt as to the outcome: Delegates to the 8.4 million-member denomination's quadrennial gathering in Cleveland appeared ready to affirm the official stand that "the practice of homosexuality" is "incompatible with Christian teaching." Less certain is whether the nation's second-largest Protestant bodyand the Presbyterian and the Episcopal churches, which will also be taking on these questions over the coming monthscan avoid a split over the most divisive social issue among American churches since slavery.
Underlying the turmoil is a basic theological question: Is it a sin for consenting adults to engage in homosexual acts? The traditional answer, which still holds sway in most churches, is a resounding yes. Theologians through the centuries have used texts like Leviticus 18:22 ("You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination") and the writing of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10 ("Neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals . . . shall inherit the kingdom of God") to depict homosexuality as contrary to the "providential norm" of sexual relations within the bonds of marriage.
Old style. Gay-rights advocates say biblical admonitions have been grossly misinterpreted and do not apply to modern culture. L. William Countryman, a professor at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif., contends that biblical references to homosexuality pertain to ancient purity rites, which also forbade eating unclean food, handling corpses, or having sex with a menstruating woman. "Paul never says homosexuals are sinful but that they are unclean," Countryman argues. "And Paul does not regard ritual uncleanness as a barrier between gentiles and God." Robin Scroggs, professor emeritus at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, argues that Paul was really condemning pederasty, common in ancient Rome and Greece, rather than relationships between consenting adults.
Critics of homosexual behavior argue otherwise. Prof. Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, author of the forthcoming The Bible and Homosexual Practice, contends that "the Levitical prohibitions against homosexuality are no more outdated than those against incest, adultery, and bestiality."
Yet as divisive as the debates have been, some sense that the controversy may be sensitizing churches to the role they should play in curbing hatred directed at homosexuals. Gays and lesbians "are not the church's enemy," says Gagnon. "The old saying 'hate the sin but love the sinner' holds true." - J.L.S.
A United Methodist committee has recommended that the denomination's stance against same-sex weddings be put into church law, making it easier to discipline clergy who violate the ban.
The 8.4-million member United Methodist Church, the nation's third largest denomination after Catholics and Baptists, meets every four years to determine church policy. It has been struggling with the issue of homosexuality at every national meeting since 1972.
In 1996, the United Methodists adopted a ban on clergy officiating at same-sex unions as part of its social principles, a preamble to the Book of Discipline, the church law book.
"The social principles are really guidelines," said the Rev. Andrew Wolfe, senior pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood.
Wolfe, an alternate delegate on the committee that made the recommendation, said the proposal would tighten the church's ability to restrict clergy from violating the doctrine.
"It makes it more definitive," Wolfe said. "This becomes the law of the church. It would prohibit clergy from performing same-sex unions."
After a week of committee meetings, the United Methodist General Conference will begin voting on proposals today. The national meeting concludes on Friday.
Various other committees are likely to make recommendations on the homosexuality issue, though they will probably keep the church's stance that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."
It's such a hot issue that one committee received more than 320 petitions on homosexuality from churches all over the country. Some of the recommendations called for blessing same-sex unions; others spelled out harsher language forbidding it.
The Rev. Bill Morgan, superintendent of the Birmingham-East District and a delegate from the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, said the delegates seem to favor keeping the current stance against homosexuality.
"I don't see it changing at this time," he said.
The church's policy also notes the "sacred worth" of homosexuals, Wolfe said. "We believe God's grace is available to all people," he said.
"As Methodists, we hate to draw lines in the sand," Wolfe said. "It's a gut-wrenching issue."
CLEVELAND The United Methodist Church, torn by internal dissent and confronted by gay rights advocates, Thursday reaffirmed its prohibition against homosexual ministers and again declared that homosexuality is contrary to Scripture.
In a series of votes during a tumultuous meeting of its international General Conference, nearly a thousand delegates voted 2 to 1 against blessing same-sex unions and ordaining gays and lesbians. The vote came as 27 pro-gay protesters were ejected from the convention floor and arrested.
The conference which meets every four years and is the church's highest authority also restated its previous stand that while God's grace is available to homosexuals, sex between homosexuals is contrary to Scripture.
At the same time, the delegates approved without debate a resolution that implored families and churches "not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends."
Homosexuality is an issue in many churches this year. But the action by the United Methodists has been closely followed. With 8.4 million U.S. members, the church is the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination after the Southern Baptist Convention and isviewed as closely reflecting the religious thoughts of Middle America.
Throughout the 10-day conference that is scheduled to end Friday, leaders repeatedly appealed for unity and emphasized that no matter the divergent opinions on homosexuality, they were one in their belief in Jesus.
But the exhortations and hymn-singing could not hide the deep divisions the issue has caused within the church.
The key vote opposing the ordination of homosexuals was 640-317, a 67 percent majority. The vote reaffirming that the Bible clearly teaches against homosexuality was 628-337, a 65 percent majority.
CLEVELAND--During demonstrations at the lakeside meeting hall of the United Methodist Church General Conference, two bishops and about 200 other pro-gay demonstrators were taken off by police and slapped with misdemeanor charges.
As delegates upheld the huge denomination's stand against homosexual practices, the radical protests were matched by harsh words.
Liberal caucuses blamed the church for encouraging suicide, terror and murder of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Conservatives responded that the other side has blood on its hands, arguing that tolerance of same-sex activity carries health risks.
In one heated exchange, Professor Ben Silva-Netto of California's Pacific School of Religion demanded, "God forbid that our decisions become baseball bats to smash people's heads."
Such rhetoric "hurts me," replied the Rev. Mark Fenstermacher of Elkhart, Ind., but he insisted that clear support for Christian tradition was essential.
A former Methodist district superintendent, the Rev. Deborah Pitney of Eugene, Ore., urged delegates to permit diverse views. "I don't want the United Methodist Church to tell my daughter she is going to hell because she cannot agree," she said.
Demonstrators have not disrupted the decorum at meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention, Catholic Church or [the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]--not yet, at least. Those groups are not close to considering change. But for most of the 20th century, Methodists have been at the progressive forefront of most social and doctrinal issues.
Homosexuality has proved to be the one great exception. In the 28-year conflict, moral traditionalists have held their ground.
This time around, despite the demonstrations inside and outside the hall, they posted solid two-thirds majorities against homosexual behavior, against active gay and lesbian clergy, and against ceremonies for same-sex couples. Activists said those votes represented the belief of grass-roots Methodists.
What happens now among the one-third in the moral minority?
"I think we'll see a significant number of people leave," said a disconsolate Marilyn Alexander, who leads a caucus of 165 congregations that resist church policy on homosexuality.
"They'll think, who needs the church? How long do you stay in an abusive relationship?" said Alexander, a former seminary administrator at Southern Methodist University.
Alexander believes this week's decisions will be overturned someday, but not for perhaps two decades. "I wonder if the church will still be alive at that point," she said.
That doesn't mean the liberal wing will play dead. One prime strategist, Chicago pastor Gregory Dell, who was suspended for leading a same-sex ceremony, says this week's protests against "denominational cleansing" are only the beginning.
The Methodist church will face a "consistent, active and ongoing challenge to business as usual" until the day it changes policy, he said.
One of those who helped prosecute Dell, the Rev. Scott Field of Naperville, was his strategic counterpart for the energized conservative alliance during the eleven-day conference. The conservatives had worked hard for eight years, and helped steer like-minded delegates through a blizzard of legislation.
Field believes homosexuality has been settled and "the church is getting ready to move on to other issues."
The denomination has lost 21 percent of its U.S. membership in the last two decades. But churches in Southern states have fared better, and conservatives expect their voting strength will increase through U.S. reapportionment and church growth overseas.
Legislation and a judicial ruling here have laid the groundwork for trials of clergy who have pledged to continue conducting same-sex rituals. "There's liable to be a lot of tumult," Field predicts, but "if we get a few convictions with teeth, that will dramatically decrease."
As delegates headed home, the Rev. Linda Campbell-Marshall, a liberal district superintendent in Maine, said the church body was "lacerated."
"There is going to be a profound need for damage control. One-third of our people are bleeding, and they're not going to stop bleeding because the issue has been legislatively resolved."
The United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland last week was the scene of many dramatic protests and arrests, but no dramatic change.
Ultimately, current church policy on homosexuality was reaffirmed by two thirds of the delegates, while more conservative and liberal appeals were consistently voted down.
Delegates began by rejecting a proposal requiring clergy to sign a statement that homosexuality is not God's perfect will for individuals, by a vote of 705 to 210. But on May 11, the delegates voted 628 to 337 to retain the current language in the Book of Discipline stating "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." The current language and standards of the Book of Discipline which forbid ministers to perform same sex unions were also upheld 646 to 294.
The Judicial Council, the denomination's supreme court, also maintained current structure by reaffirming the Book of Discipline as the law of the United Methodist Church. The Judicial Council warned that individual conferences may not "legally negate, ignore or violate," the Book of Discipline's mandate to refrain from performing same sex unions without incurring the consequences outlined in the Book of Discipline.
The council's ruling, in part, came as a response to the decision made by leaders of the California-Nevada Annual Conference not to prosecute the 68 clergy who participated in a same sex ceremony for two Methodist lesbians (ct, March 1, 1999, p.17).
The votes took place in a heated environment fanned by the civil disobedience protests of homosexual rights advocates.
Plagues in the Church?
Mel White's Soulforce coalition organized a protest of about 350 Methodist supporters to draw attention to "the homophobia, racism, and colonialism that plagues our church."
About 200 protesters were arrested for blocking the convention center drive, including Chicago-area leader Gregory Dell, who is still under suspension because of the same sex union he performed in 1998, and Jimmy Creech a former United Methodist clergyman who lost his orders after a similar charge in 1999.
More arrests took place the next day, when a group of about 30 pastors and delegates disrupted legislative proceedings. Those arrested included Bishops C. Joseph Sprague of Chicago and Susan Morrison of Albany, New York. This marks the first time in recent Methodist history delegates of the general conference have been forcibly removed from the floor.
"Something greater is happening in Methodism, but the battle is being played out on the issue of homosexuality," says Andrea Gancarz, a former lesbian who now is involved with Transforming Congregations, a United Methodist movement to help people who wish to leave homosexual lifestyles. "The larger issue is the authority of scripture, and who gets to interpret what the Bible says and stands for."
Gancarz believes that many delegates are uncomfortable with the thought of excluding anyone from the body of Christ, yet they are also uncomfortable, "fully affirming actions that Paul lists alongside sins like adultery and thieving in Corinthians 6:9."
Such perspective is underscored by the sentence delegates voted to add after the Book of Discipline's incompatibility phrase: "We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends." Delegates also voted not to support any programs to help people leave or renounce homosexuality.
Will the Church Split?
Because the United Methodist church is one of the largest mainline denominations in America, and because a large percentage of heterosexual Methodist leaders accept and support homosexuality, it is likely that the church will continue to be a prime battleground for affirmation of homosexual behavior as an acceptable lifestyle.
"We do not believe this will divide the church," Bishop Robert Morgan of Louisville Kentucky told the United Methodist News Service after the second round of protests and arrests. "Our commitment is to stay together."
Jody Veenker is Editorial Resident for Christianity Today.