LIVING IN TENSION OVER HOMOSEXUALITY
IN THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
"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).
"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).
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
Rev. William Lawrence, dean and professor of
American church history at Southern
Methodist University'sPerkins 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."
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:
"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
"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:
"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
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
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'sPerkins 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
It remains to be seen whether the UMC will
undergo a new schism over sexual orientation, or will be able to find a
between unanimity and schism -- one that will accommodate diversity of
beliefs and perhaps of actions.
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:
They 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."
They 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.
They reaffirmed (640 to 317) that sexually active gays and lesbians,
including those in committed relationships, must not be ordained.
They 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
occurred in North America:
The 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.
The U.S. Supreme Court decriminalized private
same-sex behavior among adults.
Same-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 2006Minnesota 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.
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:
The mechanism by which Christian beliefs are formed. They are
generally based on five factors:
What do various biblical passages mean?
What have been the Church's traditions through history?
What have been one's personal experiences?, and
What 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
Another problem is caused by different fundamental beliefs about the
nature of the Bible:
Religious 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.
Religious 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.
A 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.
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
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
There are four obvious scenarios for the denomination, all of
which are difficult and quite painful:
Church 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.
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.
Maintain the status quo: The membership could decide to continue to endlessly
debate these issues without resolution. Bishop Elias Galvan, after the acquittal of
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
This path would have the advantage of
keeping the denomination together. But it would be an exhausting process which
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.
Reach 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:
It would involve the ordination of some sexually active
homosexuals and bisexuals -- a path forward that conservatives find abhorrent.
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.
The 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
In 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.
Ignore 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
Compromising on church rituals for same-sex committed couples:
As noted above:
"Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be
conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."
"...self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as
candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United
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
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:
The 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."
Similarly, the decision to allow a UMC minister to celebrate a same-sex
relationship outside of the church property could be left up to:
The minister's choice.
The majority vote of individual congregation
The majority vote of the applicable annual conference.
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
The 2006 Conference has come and gone without any such confidence building
measure. The next opportunity will be 2008.