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May 13, 2000
Column #976


     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 denomination.

     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 enough.''

     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 likely.

     However, the United Methodist Church is no longer in danger of splitting apart over the issue.

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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