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bullet"Is an amicable departure a better option than continuing to tear away at the fabric of our denomination?...We are pained at their pain, and we don't want to be unloving in our response. But I'm not sure I see a middle ground here." Rev. James Heidenger, editor of the conservative Methodist "Good News magazine," (2000).
bullet"We think the Holy Spirit has left the United Methodist Church as a denomination. God is for justice, and when you exclude people from a congregation, God goes out the door with the outcasts." Rev. Mel White, director of Soulforce an ecumenical gay-straight alliance. (2000).

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About the United Methodist Church:

In 1970, they reported 10.7 million members in the U.S.  Like other mainline denominations, their membership has declined significantly over the past 35 years; they reported 8.3 million in the year 2000, a membership loss which has averaged about 77,000 per year. 1 The church "...has a growing presence in strategically significant parts of the world, including Russia, central Africa, and eastern Europe." 2 Its non-US numbers have increased from 0.477 million to 1.51 million over the same interval. They are the third largest Christian denomination and the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. (The largest Christian denomination is the Roman Catholic Church; the largest Protestant denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention).

Rev. William Lawrence, dean and professor of American church history at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX, wrote a commentary on division within the church for the 2004 General Conference. He noted that members of the United Methodist Church "...tend to dwell in the very core of American culture because they occupy the broad middle of American society." 2 The North American cultural debate over equal treatment of homosexuals and same-sex committed couples, including the right to marry, is mirrored within the denomination. If their membership can find some way to live and work together, even while holding a range of radically different views on sexual orientation, then "They will provide a gift to other church bodies and, potentially, to the nation as a whole. If not, the church will have missed a glorious moment of grace and will hand on to some future generation the challenge it refused to face. And a glorious moment on the calendar will have passed them by." 2

"The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church" regulates the activities of the denomination world-wide. It contains a few references to homosexuality, including two which cover the core disputes:

bullet"Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."
bullet"We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman...Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

On a positive note, they do support equal rights for persons of all sexual orientations in certain restricted areas outside of the church:

bullet"Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons. We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting their rightful claims where they have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law. Moreover, we support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against gays and lesbians. We also commit ourselves to social witness against the coercion and marginalization of former homosexuals."

More about the Book of Discipline.

The UMC holds its General Conference of Methodist Churches (a.k.a. General Conference) every four years, typically in May. It is attended by delegates from Methodist congregations around the world. 3

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A past schism in the Methodist movement:

Some UMC members have suggested that the current conflict over sexual orientation and behavior within the denomination may cause a church schism similar to that which occurred at the 1844 General Conference. That split was triggered by a Methodist bishop who had recently married and thereby become the owner of some African-American slaves. Rev. William Lawrence, dean and professor of American church history at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX, wrote a commentary on division within the church for the 2004 General Conference. He wrote: "It was a moral crisis because Methodismís founder, John Wesley, had been an ardent opponent of slavery, and many within the church insisted on maintaining that absolute position. But Methodists in such regions as South Carolina felt it was not a violation of Methodist life to be a slave owner....It took nearly a century to heal. Even when the church was reunited in 1939, Methodists bore the scars of racism so visibly that the denomination created a segregated system which lasted until 1968." 2

It remains to be seen whether the UMC will undergo a new schism over sexual orientation, or will be able to find a compromise path between unanimity and schism -- one that will accommodate diversity of beliefs and perhaps of actions.

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Recent church developments on homosexuality:

Year 2000 General Conference: Delegates refused to require a proposed loyalty oath for ministers. However, they did affirm three rejections of same-sex behavior and same-sex relationships:

bulletThey rejected (705 to 210) a loyalty oath that all ministers would have had to agree with. The text was: "I do not believe that homosexuality is God's perfect will for any person. I will not practice it. I will not promote it. I will not allow its promotion to be encouraged under my authority."
bulletThey reaffirmed (628 to 337) their belief that homosexual behavior is incompatible with Christian teaching. A compromise proposal would have stated that: "Many consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. Others believe it acceptable when practiced in a context of human covenantal faithfulness." Even though this resolution clearly described the reality of the membership's thinking, It was rejected 585 to 376.
bulletThey reaffirmed (640 to 317) that sexually active gays and lesbians, including those in committed relationships, must not be ordained.
bulletThey reaffirmed (646 to 294) the prohibition of "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual union" being conducted by UMC ministers or occurring in UMC churches.

Between the year 2000 and 2004 Conferences, a number of significant events occurred in North America:

bulletThe trial of Rev. Karen Dammann who had been in a "partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship" for over a decade. She and her spouse have a five year old son and are now married. Karen was charged with "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible to Christian teachings." She pleaded not guilty at her church trial. The jury voted 11 for acquittal; two were undecided.
bulletThe U.S. Supreme Court decriminalized private same-sex behavior among adults.
bulletSame-sex couples were permitted to marry in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, starting in mid-2003. They were able to marry in Massachusetts starting ten days after the 2004 Conference concluded.

Year 2004 General Conference: Delegates approved a petition to deny church funding any group which promotes the acceptance of homosexuality. However, funding of dialogues on homosexuality.

Year 2006 Minnesota Annual Conference: This state body of the United Methodist Church passed nine petitions related to homosexuality. Victoria Rebeck, communications director for the Conference said: "The biggest news is that we had a good, respectful discussion of these very emotional issues and people really listened to each other." The closest vote was a real squeaker: 358 to 356. It involved a petition to change the definition of marriage from "a man and a woman" to "two adult persons," and to delete a sentence supporting laws that define marriage as between a man and woman. The resolutions will be passed on to the 2008 General Conference.

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Some of the core problems:

There are many problems that inhibit open and effective dialog on sexual orientation within the UMC and other mainline denominations. We have participated and "lurked" at a number of Internet bulletin boards and have observed other attempts to reach agreement on a path forward for the church. It has been a depressing experience. We have observed that most participant's positions are rigid; they take either a conservative or liberal position. Most of their effort is involved in trying to change the beliefs of others, not in exploring options which might lead to a compromise position. We have observed very little movement towards any kind of a consensus by any of the participants.

The liberal/conservative division within mainline denominations is often seen between young and elderly church members, between conservative and liberal members of individual congregations, between rural and urban congregations, and between socially conservative and liberal regions of the U.S. These divisions are apparent at the church-wide conferences.

Some of the problems are:

bulletThe mechanism by which Christian beliefs are formed. They are generally based on five factors:
bulletWhat do various biblical passages mean?
bulletWhat have been the Church's traditions through history?
bulletWhat have been one's personal experiences?, and
bulletWhat can be derived from logical reason and observation?

On matters like genocide, racism, abuse, etc, these four sources of information generally agree. However, on matters relating to sexual orientation and sexual behavior, sources can point in opposite directions. The first two sources, which are often favored by religious conservatives, sometimes conflict with the latter two, which are often favored by religious liberals.

bulletAnother problem is caused by different fundamental beliefs about the nature of the Bible:
bulletReligious conservatives often believe that the Bible was written by authors who were directly inspired by God. Many feel that the Bible is inerrant -- free of error as originally written. It is regarded as the actual Word of God. They cite about six proof texts -- passages which they believe condemn various homosexual activities -- and conclude that God hates homosexual behavior.
bulletReligious liberals often believe that the Bible's authors were motivated by a desire to promote their own religious and spiritual beliefs. The authors' knowledge on scientific matters -- including sexual orientation -- was limited. They were also limited by social customs of the time which considered religious intolerance & oppression, genocide, human slavery, limited roles for women, etc. to be acceptable. When liberals scan the Bible for material on homosexuality, they often look for general biblical themes: e.g. advocating justice, love, monogamy, caring, etc.
bulletA third problem is the certainty with which both conservatives and liberals in the denomination believe that God is on their side. Many believe that they have sincerely assessed the will of God through prayer, and are positive that God affirms their own personal beliefs about sexual orientation. From a pilot study that we have conducted, it appears that prayer is an ineffective way of assessing God's will. People on opposite sides of a debate will generally conclude that God agrees with them.

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Possible future scenarios in the United Methodist Church:

In 2004, Rev. William Lawrence wrote:

"Delegates face the task knowing that their church is on the verge of a moral and a constitutional crisis over homosexuality. The issue has been debated for at least 30 years. But it has been crystallized by the acquittal of a self-avowed lesbian clergy member of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference.

It is a moral crisis because positions in the debate have been framed in absolute terms. Zero tolerance for homosexual activity is, to some, the only permissible moral ground based on their interpretation of Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. To others, full openness to all persons is the only permissible moral ground the church can adopt, based on their interpretation of the same four sources and guidelines for making theological decisions....

There are four obvious scenarios for the denomination, all of which are difficult and quite painful:

bulletChurch schism: This would have both negative and positive implications. It would cause major dislocation and distress by severing congregations, friendships, and families. It would force members to leave the church of their youth with which they have been closely identified throughout their life. It would also largely end the internal conflict in the church over sexual orientation.

History has shown that schisms are not necessarily permanent. The division over slavery took almost a century to heal. A split over sexual orientation might be resolved in less time. However, there is always the possibility that the two resultant denominations might well start to differ on other matters, making reintegration impossible.
bulletMaintain the status quo: The membership could decide to continue to endlessly debate these issues without resolution. Bishop Elias Galvan, after the acquittal of Karen Dammann in 2004-MAR, said: "The church is not of one mind. I expect this issue to continue to be raised until society comes to terms with it." While this is probably a true statement, it is a confession of failure. Galvan apparently admits that the church follows trends in moral and ethics rather than leading them.

This path would have the advantage of keeping the denomination together. But it would be an exhausting process which would drain a great deal of energy from the church and reduce its ability to respond to other other vital social problems.

The prognosis is not good. Voting data from the year 2000 conference shows that conservatives significantly outnumber the liberals in the denomination. If current trends continue, older teenagers and young adults will take increasingly more liberal positions on these matters. In time, they would sway the majority in their direction. However, even if these trends hold, it might take generations before the liberals reach a majority. Another factor which might slow the rate of change is a possible conservative backlash generated by the advent of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, and throughout Canada.
bulletReach a compromise: This would also keep the denomination unified. It would free up energy to tackle other social problems. But it would require members to back away from their strongly held beliefs and abandon some long-standing traditions in order to negotiate some type of middle ground. It would involve a path forward which both sides will probably consider extremely distasteful and even contrary to the will of God as they interpret it. It would probably be unacceptable to most members and thus impossible to implement.

Conservatives are keen that no homosexual be ordained or continue as clergy. They consider homosexual behavior to be always sinful, irrespective of the nature of the relationship -- even by a married couple. Liberals are equally dedicated to the principle that persons of all sexual orientations be considered equally as possible candidates for ordination, just as qualified individuals of all races and both genders are so considered today. Liberals view this as a matter of fundamental justice.

The only apparent compromise would be to allow otherwise qualified gay and lesbian candidates to be ordained, and then assigned to congregations who are willing to accept them. This would be a very difficult change to implement for a number of reasons:
bulletIt would involve the ordination of some sexually active homosexuals and bisexuals -- a path forward that conservatives find abhorrent.
bulletIt would also involve retaining impediments to their ordination -- a path forward that liberals find abhorrent. They would probably consider it equivalent to discriminating against African-American or female clergy.
bulletThe UMC has a long-standing policy of guaranteeing an assignment to each members of the clergy. That policy would have to be amended because there would probably be -- at least initially --  many more homosexual clergy than congregations willing to accept them. Some clergy would be surplus.
bulletIn the UMC, clergy are appointed by the Bishop who assigns them to a church which may be anywhere in the world. Their task would be made more difficult. Individual congregations would somehow have to indicate their willingness to accept a minister with a homosexual orientation. Then, bishops would have to match available homosexual clergy with specific congregations.
bulletIgnore the 1,000 pound gorilla in the corner: The U.S. Senate faced a somewhat similar situation in the past when human slavery was legal and the abolition movement was gaining strength. The senators agreed to not mention the abolition of slavery in their debates and bills because of its inflammatory nature. In the UMC, the conservative majority could simply silence the liberal minority by denying liberals the option of mentioning the homosexual issue in their debates and resolutions. The Roman Catholic Church has taken this path on matters of female ordination and married clergy.

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Compromising on church rituals for same-sex committed couples:

As noted above:

bullet"Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."
bullet"...self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."

Again, at first glance, there is a great gulf between the conservative and liberal positions. Conservatives are keen that there be no church recognition of same-sex relationships at all, including those couples who have been married in those areas of the world that grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As of 2006, this includes Massachusetts, Belgium, Canada, Holland, and Spain. Conservatives also want an absolute prohibition of homosexual ordination. Liberals are keen that such rituals be freely made available to same-sex committed couples and that sexual orientation be removed as a factor in ordination.

A number of compromises are possible here. But all would involve a type of local option in which  a diversity of practice would be allowed among congregations or conferences. The Book of Discipline could be amended to allow any of the following:

bulletThe decision to allow the celebration of same-sex civil unions (as in Vermont) or or marriages (as in Massachusetts after 2004-MAY-20) or domestic partnerships (as in California) inside a given local church could be left to:
bulletThe minister's choice.
bulletThe majority vote of individual congregation.
bulletThe majority vote of the applicable annual conference. The Troy Conference at the UMC has proposed Petition #41082 to the 2004 General Conference which would qualify the prohibition against "(c)eremonies that celebrate homosexual unions" (Book of Discipline, Paragraph 332.6) by adding "except within annual conferences that have authorized such ceremonies."
bulletSimilarly, the decision to allow a UMC minister to celebrate a same-sex relationship outside of the church property could be left up to:
bulletThe minister's choice.
bulletThe majority vote of individual congregation
bulletThe majority vote of the applicable annual conference.

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Taking the first step towards a compromise:

In battles between countries, as in conflicts within a church denomination, it is often helpful to take a first, small, confidence-building step. One might be for the delegates to a General Conference to at least formally recognize that differences of opinion exist within the denomination over homosexual behavior and same-sex relationships. The year 2000 resolution could be resurrected and voted upon. It read:  "Many consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. Others believe it acceptable when practiced in a context of human covenantal faithfulness." That resolution was defeated 585 to 376 when it was initially proposed. Bringing it up for another vote might give a good indication of how willing delegates are to reach a compromise. If they are not willing to recognize reality, then real compromise will probably be impossible.

The 2006 Conference has come and gone without any such confidence building measure. The next opportunity will be 2008.

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  1. "Statistics: U.S. Data," United Methodist Church, at: http://www.umc.org/
  2. Rev. William B. Lawrence, "Commentary: Finding sacred space between unanimity, schism," 2004-APR-30, at: http://www.umc.org/
  3. "Section VI: Annual Conferences," United Methodist Church, at: http://www.umc.org/

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Copyright © 2004 & 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2005-
Author: B.A. Robinson

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