May 13, 2000
UNITED METHODISTS RESIST HOMOSEXUAL DEMANDS
CLEVELAND - For several years the
United Methodist Church, America's second largest Protestant denomination
with 8.4 million members, has appeared to be on a course of self-destruction
over the issue of homosexuality.
In 1996 the UMC's General
Conference passed a rule, ''Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions
shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our
churches'' because homosexuality is ''incompatible with Christian
doctrine.'' Hundreds of Methodist pastors and many bishops have been in open
rebellion ever since.
In Chicago Rev. Gregory Dell
conducted a same-sex ceremony in defiance of the law, was tried, convicted
and suspended from his pastorate. However, his bishop, Jack Tuell, who
presided over the trial, responded by calling for repeal of the 1996 church
law, because it interferes ''with the freedom and integrity of our clergy to
carry out their ministry.''
In California, nearly 100 clergy
from across the country participated in a same-sex blessing of lesbian
grandmothers, feeling a strength in numbers. The pastors of four evangelical
UMC churches left the denomination in protest. However, an investigative
body concluded that the 66 pastors from California who co-celebrated the
service would not be placed on trial.
San Francisco Bishop Melvin Talbert
applauded, saying that while the ruling may appear to have broken covenant
with ''this one narrow focus of law,'' there is ''another more basic and
fundamental covenant,'' the California-Nevada Conference's ''long-standing
covenant commitments for inclusiveness and justice.''
A few days after the decision was
announced in February, three conservative groups - Good News, the Institute
on Religion and Democracy and the Confessing Movement - formed a coalition
''to seek doctrinal, fiscal and procedural accountability'' in the
Their focus was to uphold church
law at the UMC's General Conference, the church's highest legislative body
that meets once every four years. That effort was impressively successful.
Delegates voted by 646-294 to refuse same-sex unions or marriages.. By a
similar 2-1 margin, existing law was upheld prohibiting the ordination of
practicing homosexuals. And that statement was moved from a section on
social principles to a section on ordained clergy, making it stronger.
Margins actually widened compared
to the votes at the 1996 General Conference on key issues. The statement
that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching" was endorsed by
a 577-378 margin in 1996 and by 628-337 in 2000. For the first time the
orthodox standard of the church was presented as a majority report by
committees to the Conference. Liberals have historically dominated the
legislative committees, forcing conservatives to fight an uphill battle on
the Conference floor. On Thursday they sailed through.
What happened to strengthen the
hand of evangelicals and moderates?
Rev. Scott Field, Legislative
Director for Good News, attributes success to ''a renewal of prayer that
opened the doors for God to work.'' He notes that in 1996 there were 350
''remote prayer groups'' praying for the Conference, and 1,100 were doing so
around the nation this year. ''Between 75-200 people are here every day for
prayer. They go to all the committee meetings, sitting and praying. This is
the first time that has happened.
''Before God brings renewal, God
seeks His people to pray.''
The trials awakened grassroots
Methodists ''who don't want their money and focus on the mission of the
church placed on a few misbehaving clergy,'' Field added. ''Enough is
Another force for renewal were the
150 international delegates who represent 1.2 million Methodists around the
world. Bishop S.K. Das of Pakistan said, ''If I promoted the homosexual
agenda in Pakistan, Christians would stone me.''
Dr. James Heidinger II, President
of Good News, said that over the last 20 years, ''We have learned how to get
delegates elected, how to teach them about legislative procedures and to
understand how the system works.'' The number of sympathetic delegates rose
from 555 in 1996 to 616 of the 992 delegates plus 150 alternates. Good News
hosted a free daily breakfast for hundreds of evangelical/moderate delegates
every morning at which they were briefed on the last day's developments in
various committees and key upcoming votes, lifting morale and comradery.
The other side was also visibly
organized. Rows of gays and lesbians stood mutely outside the Convention
Center with signs around their necks pleading for acceptance. Mel White, a
former ghost writer for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham, led a
group that briefly interrupted an ecumenical service led by the Archbishop
of Canterbury, prompting police to arrest nearly 200 demonstrators,
including Rev. Dell, suspended for a same-sex ceremony.
Dell said that if the Methodists
voted to continue a ban on such ceremonies, more protests and arrests are
However, the United Methodist
Church is no longer in danger of splitting apart over the issue.
Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.