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Dozens of demonstrators demanding a more inclusive church took over the floor of a May 3 session of the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. They held Communion around the center table and sang songs, causing the presiding bishop to suspend the morning session. 2012 file photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS

2012 file photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS

Dozens of demonstrators demanding a more inclusive church took over the floor of a May 3 session of the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. They held Communion around the center table and sang songs, causing the presiding bishop to suspend the morning session.

Annual meetings stir human sexuality debates

By Kathy L. Gilbert
July 20, 2015 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

United Methodists at their annual regional meetings talked of many things, but some of the most passionate discussions revolved around what Scripture and the denomination’s law book say about human sexuality.

In the heat of the summer meetings came the hot-button decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that establishes same-sex civil marriage as a constitutional right in all states.

The decision added to the debates over whether United Methodist churches should conduct same-sex ceremonies and whether ordained United Methodist clergy should officiate. Both are currently banned under church law.

The United States has 56 annual conferences that may cover an entire state, part of a state or even parts of two or more states. There are 76 annual conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. The conferences are preparing legislation they will take to the 2016 General Conference.

The General Conference meets every four years to decide church law. The next meeting is  May 10-20, 2016, in Portland at the Oregon Convention Center in the Oregon-Idaho Conference.

The Supreme Court ruling came as the Pacific-Northwest Conference was meeting. Bishop Grant J. Hagiya paused and asked for a moment of personal privilege to address the court’s decision.

Reflecting on 1 Corinthians 12, he said, “(I) celebrate with those who found joy in the court’s decision and join in lament with those who disagreed with it.”

Leaving the flock

Many United Methodists have expressed concern churches or individuals may leave the denomination over the ongoing debate about how the church should address and minister to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning/queer people.

It seems to have happened in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. Wesley United Methodist Church in Quarryville, Pennsylvania, has decided to leave the denomination primarily, according to reports on the conference website, because of the denomination’s homosexuality controversy and challenges to the Book of Discipline positions and policies.

The conference is in negotiations with Wesley over future ownership of all property and assets they hold in trust for The United Methodist Church.

The Great Plains Conference representing United Methodists from Kansas and Nebraska, voted to ask the 2016 General Conference to acknowledge there are “diverse beliefs regarding homosexuality.”

The petition would strike references of homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teachings and would eliminate restrictions against practicing homosexuals being certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the church.

The petition would eliminate the performance of same-sex marriages from the list of offenses that would initiate a church trial.

During the heated debate, the Rev. Rob Schmutz, United Methodist Church at Park City, Kansas, spoke against the petition saying he would resign if it passed.

After the votes were tallied and the resolution approved, he surrendered his ministerial credentials to Bishop Scott Jones and left.

Striking, rewriting, staying the course

Conferences debated striking, leaving or rewriting the phrase “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” in the current Book of Discipline. The language was added at the 1972 General Conference.

Hope Hull United Methodist Church brought a resolution to the Alabama-West Florida Conference calling upon church leadership to “hold one another in mutual accountability to maintain the biblical and Disciplinary order of our connection.”

A Mississippi resolution will be forwarded to all active bishops encouraging all General Conference delegates to uphold the disciplinary language with regard to violations of the human sexuality standards. 

Holston voted to “table indefinitely” a petition to delete language in Book of Discipline regarding homosexuality.

Baltimore-Washington, Virginia, Northern Illinois, Greater New Jersey and the Desert-Southwest  conferences voted to delete language saying homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching from the Book of Discipline.

The Greater New Jersey Conference approved  six resolutions concerning human sexuality. At the end of balloting, Bishop John Schol said, “I want other conferences to know us not for what we agree or disagree about, but because we love each other.”

The Desert-Southwest Conference proposed changes to paragraphs 161, Section F, Human Sexuality; 304, Qualifications for Ordination; 341, Unauthorized Conduct; and 806 Fiscal Responsibilities.

The conference stated: “(We) affirm that the foundations of the Judeo-Christian and Wesleyan traditions encourage God’s people to welcome all people into the full life and ministry of the Church, and that the history of our faith teaches that God’s grace is shown when the excluded or marginalized are welcomed and accepted fully into the Body of Christ.”

The Rev. Joseph DiPaolo, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, urged the conference to demand clergy accountability and asked clergy to challenge those rules “only through legitimate channels of holy conferencing.” The resolution passed with 266 members voting yes, 166 voting no and 12 abstentions.

The Memphis Conference called for district dialogue on the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the life of the church. The Susquehanna Conference approved a petition to welcome LGBTQ people into the church.

The Florida Conference encouraged a just resolution process instead of church trials for resolving complaints against ordained pastors who officiate at same-sex weddings or congregations that host them.

Reducing harm to LGBTQ teens

In adopting a resolution regarding reducing harm for LGBTQ teens, two pastors in the North Alabama Conference worked together to write the petition saying it was not about homosexuality but was about families and responding to people in difficult situations.

The Revs. John Kearns and Dave Barnhart said they worked to find language that would represent a common ground to which opposing positions could agree. The goal was to improve long-term health outcomes for teens and young adults who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning/queer.

The resolution “implores families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.”

In a statement about their work, the pastors said, “We fully realize that our disagreements about psychology, Scripture, theology and ethics are real  and deep. However, we believe that we can have relationships of Christian love despite these differences.”

Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.