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The United Methodist Church and Homosexuality

More comments at their 2012 conference.
Introduction to the 2016 conference.

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This topic is continued from the previous essay

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More comments by delegates at the 2012 Conference:

At the 2012 Conference a suggestions were made to formally recognize a split within the denomination on matters relating to sexual orientation. Although such a split is obvious within the church, all attempts to recognize them were voted down.

  • H. Eddie Fox, a delegate from Tennessee, said that Bible passages support the exclusionary statements by the denomination. He said:

    "Jesus said so from the beginning of creation -- God made male and female. We must not send confusing messages to those who are part of this church."

    He seems to be linking biological sex and sexual orientation together as one.

  • Rev. Margaret Mallory, chair of the Church and Society subcommittee described the conflict as:

    "... a thorn in the collective side of the church."

  • Rev. James Preston, of Rockford, IL responded to a suggestion that a more inclusive stance of the LGBT community would lead to schism by saying:

    "But we're hemorrhaging already. The church is bleeding today and we just need to be clear on that. ... It is misleading to say people are welcomed, but if you disagree with [the church's perspective] you are not [welcomed] because you will not be acknowledged." 1

  • Faith Geer, a reserve delegate from McCandless, PA said:

    "It seems so simple to agree to disagree. That's all the petitions asked for, and we couldn't accept it."

  • Kasap Owan Tshibang, a delegate from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said:

    "In African culture it is 'taboo' to speak about sexuality. ... We do not want to be caught up in the issue."

  • Some African delegates were concerned that the church would license "people to go to Hell" if it became more inclusive of the LGBT community. This is an apparent reference to the beliefs of many Christian conservatives that same-gender sexual behavior causes people to lose any possibility of salvation so that they will automatically spend eternity in the torture chambers of Hell.

    A biblical passage that emphasizes this is located at 1 Corinthians 6:9. Paul wrote that some people will not inherit the Kingdom of God (heaven). Unfortunately, interpretations of the passage differ, and there is no concensus on exactly what group(s) Paul thinks will lose their inherentance.

  • 2012-MAY-04: Last day of the General Conference: The church's policies toward gay and lesbian clergy was to be discussed. However, because of the total lack of any inclusive movement on matters relating to sexual orientation earlier in the conference, Friday's discussions were cancelled.

  • The next General Conference was scheduled for 2016-MAY, in four years.

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Webmaster's comments on the 2012 conference: (bias alert)

We normally simply report events "straight up" without inserting our own opinions. But we would like to make an exception here.

The end result of this General Conference is that the denomination projects an image to the outside world that they hold a unified position that does not really exist:

  • That all same-gender sexual behavior is intrinsically sinful, irrespective of the nature of the relationship.

  • That such behavior is incompatible with Christianity.

In doing so, they will lose many older teens and young adults, who are members of the first generation of Americans in which the majority have a family member or friend who is a member of the LGBT community. On the other hand, their decision will retain many elderly members who otherwise might have considered leaving the denomination over the homosexual issues.

A chasm is forming in the denomination between the membership in North America and those in the rest of the world. The former are gradually accepting the findings of mental health professionals and human sexuality researchers: that adults experience one of four normal, natural, unchosen, unchangeable, and morally neutral sexual orientations: heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, and asexual. The latter retain traditional beliefs about human sexuality.

The church in North America is rapidly losing membership. Meanwhile the Church in the rest of the world -- particularly Africa -- is growing rapidly in membership and influence, even as it projects the high levels of homophobia found in their cultures into the UMC. It looks as if the denomination will remain divided on the topic of homosexuality and bisexuality for the foreseeable future.

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Status of beliefs about homosexuality in the UMC when its 2016 General Conference began:

The 2012 Conference's unresolved conflict over the LGBT community remained active . Basically, conservative elements at the 2016 conference wanted to retain the existing condemnation of all same-gender sexual behavior in the Book of Discipline -- the UMC's governing document on rules and beliefs. More liberal elements wanted to modify the Book of Discipline to at least indicate reality: that the denomination is profoundly divided on the topic.

The conflict has probably intensified during the previous four years since the previous conference.

  • During mid-2015, The U.S. Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage across all 50 states, one District, and four out of five Territories. The only exception has been American Samoa, a territory where most of the population are considered American Residents, not American Citizens. Thus the High Court ruling does not necessarily apply there. A number of other predominately Christian countries around the world have also legalized same-sex marriages in recent years.

  • Later during the summer of 2015, the Episcopal Church (USA) became the third major mainline denomination in the U.S. to accept marriage equality. 2

  • During 2016-JAN, Rev. Cynthia Meyer, a UMC minister, delivered her first sermon of the year and revealed that she is a lesbian and supports acceptance of the LGBT community within the denomination. 2

  • Over 100 UMC clergy and clergy candidates have come "out of the closet" and revealed that they were gay.

  • During 2016-APR, the Rev. Val Rosenquist and Bishop Melvin Talbert officiated at the wedding of a gay couple, John Romano and Jim Wilborne, in violation of the Book of Discipline. 2

There was a feeling by many delegates that it was of vital interest to resolve the conflict quickly in order to prevent a schism within the Church. The Council of Bishops made an unusual move. Just before the Conference was to start debate on "the issue", The Council recommended that further debate on the modification of the Book of Discipline be postponed, and this this responsibility be transferred to a special commission to be organized by the Council.

Heather Hahn & Sam Hodges, writing for the United Methodist News, said:

"The bishops asked for the body’s permission to name a special commission that would closely examine every paragraph in the Book of Discipline related to human sexuality, and possibly recommend some revisions. The commission would represent the different regions of a denomination on four continents as well as the varied perspectives of the church." 3

Bishop Bruce Ough, the president of the Council of Bishops said:

"We accept our role as spiritual leaders to lead The United Methodist Church in a ‘pause for prayer’ — to step back from attempts at legislative solutions and to intentionally seek God's will for the future. ... We share with you a deep commitment to the unity of the church in Christ our Lord. ... Within the church, we are called to work and pray for more Christ-like unity with each other rather than separation from one another. This is the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21-23.”

George Howard, a delegate from the West Ohio Conference, filed a motion for the delegates to accept the bishops' recommendations. He said:

"Our church is struggling, and there are voices all around the edges -- just a variety of voices. What I’m afraid of is that if we don’t pause and allow the [Holy] Spirit to fill the space, then we will fracture."

This motion was passed by a narrow margin of 428 to 405. At least temporarily, the Conference pulled back from a likely Church schism. 3

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Webmaster's comment (bias alert):

For years, there has been a very serious conservative/liberal split in the United Methodist Church about its response to its members who are sexually active with same-sex partners. There is another split "waiting in the wings" over transgender persons; it has yet to be fully engaged. Similar splits are seen developing in other mainline Christian denominations.

My belief is that there are three main reason why the conflict over homosexuality within the UMC remains unresolved:

  • 1. The Church is split over interpretations of the Bible's "clobber passages" that have been extensively used to attack the LGBT community. Two examples are:
    • Conservatives generally interpret the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 as forbidding all same-gender sexual behavior. Some liberals interpret the same chapter as condemning men attempting to rape male angels because it is the ultimate act of anti-social behavior and/or because it involved bestiality. (Note that humans and angels are of different species.)

    • The story in Romans 1 involves former Christians who reverted to Paganism and engaged in a sexual orgy. Conservatives interpret the passage as forbidding all same-gender sexual behavior whether by women or men. Some liberals interpret the same chapter as forbidding sexual behavior by persons with a heterosexual orientation with members of the same gender. The reason is that such activity violates their basic nature. That is, the passage condemns same-gender sexual behavior by two persons with a heterosexual orientation, as well as condemning opposite-gender sexual behavior by two persons with a homosexual orientation.

    • The story in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 in which a group of individuals lose their inheritance of the Kingdom of God. That is, they would end up in Hell after death. Unfortunately, the original Greek in which the passages was written, is not clear about which specific group is involved.

Unfortunately, there appears to be little dialogue within the UMC to resolve this difference of opinion. Many religious liberals believe that the Bible accepts all monogamous, faithful, committed sexual relationships.

  • 2. Many delegates to the UMC Portland conference had hoped for and even expected a dramatic involvement by the Holy Spirit who would show the delegates a path forward to resolve their conflict. They were disappointed when this did not happen. Delegates came to the convention with opposing views, and few appear to have changed their mind during the debates.

    We have seen many similar conferences in other denomination in which the delegates were split on the LGBT issue. In a conference held by a Canadian denomination in the Maritimes, debate became very heated. The moderator halted proceedings and asked the delegates to go to a private space and pray to God for guidance. Later they resumed debate only to find that the delegates' positions had essentially all remained unchanged. Yet if one were to ask the individual delegates whether they had successfully assessed God's will on the matter, most would probably sincerely respond that God had confirmed the delegates' beliefs: Those who believed that the Church should accept gays and lesbians sincerely felt that God agreed with them; Those who believed that the Church should continue its existing policy of rejecting sexually active gays and lesbians sincerely felt that God agreed with them. And so, no progress on the issue was possible.

    The group that sponsors this web site conducted a pilot study of some of our site visitors who had an active prayer life, and who had very different views about same-sex marriage. We asked them to record their initial belief about gay marriage, and then pray to assess the will of God. 100% of those who reported back that they were initially opposed to marriage equality and found that God agreed with them. But 100% of those who reported that they initially favored marriage equality found that God also agreed with them. We concluded that prayer may be ineffective at resolving such conflicts. In fact, prayer might act to harden delegates' beliefs because many would believe that God backed their personal position.

    Unfortunately, our study would need to be repeated with more volunteers and under tighter controls before one could reach a meaningful conclusion about the effectiveness of assessing the will of God through prayer. We urge others to take up such a study.

    In 2012, we did a Google search for:

    assess will God through prayer

    It returned 20.8 million hits! The first three were links to essays on this web site. I scanned through the first five pages of results hoping to find a link that questioned the reliability of prayer. None seemed to do this. We repeated this in 2018 with the same results.

  • 3. There have been many conferences of different Christian denominations at which delegates have been similarly deadlocked. Undoubtedly, many prayed to God for guidance. The only convention of which we are aware at which there was a major shift in delegates' positions during the debates occurred almost three decades earlier in Canada during 1988. The United Church of Canada held a convention in Victoria, British Columbia. A large majority of delegates came to the conference strongly opposed to any liberalization by the denomination's policy on homosexuality. However, at the conference, a group of committed Church members from the LGBT community were allowed to speak to the delegates about the pain they had felt at being rejected by the church to which they were committed and had considered their home. The feelings of many -- perhaps most -- of the delegates changed! They later voted in favor of liberalizing church policy. One can only imagine the response that the delegates received when they returned home!

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This topic continues with a further discussion of activities at the 2016 UMC General Conference

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Related essay:

bullet Is compromise possible, or is schism inevitable?

References:

  1. Ervin Dyer, "United Methodists reaffirm line on gays. Liberal wing loses attempt to make church more inclusive," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2012-MAY-05, at: http://old.post-gazette.com
  2. Billy Hallowell, " 'The Church Might Divide': Nation’s Third Largest Faith Group Makes Key Decision in Bitter Battle Over Gay Marriage," The Blaze, 2016-MAY-19, at: http://www.theblaze.com/
  3. Heather Hahn & Sam Hodges, "GC2016 puts hold on sexuality debate," United Methodist News, 2016-MAY-18, at: http://www.umc.org/

Copyright © 2012 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2018-MAY-17

Author: B.A. Robinson
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