Methodist fight over gays raising fears of schism

Homosexual unions, ordinations on tap

May 06, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

The nation's largest Protestant body will vote next week on one of the most emotional issues in modern Christianity: homosexuality.

And as the United Methodist Church continues its policy-setting General Conference this week and next in Cleveland, some church members worry that the issue threatens the unity of not only their church but mainstream denominations everywhere.

The issues - same-sex unions and ordination of gay men and lesbians - are so emotional, so divisive, that members are talking about a possible schism among the 9.6 million church members worldwide.

"The whole church is just going to split up," said Nina Boal, a lesbian Methodist church member and computer programmer who lives in Columbia.

"Whatever happens, a bunch of folks are going to be leaving, and it's disturbing," she said.

The Cleveland conference started earlier this week and continues through next Friday. Delegates are addressing almost 2,000 proposals - everything from organizational issues to whether or not to launch an expensive ad campaign.

But homosexuality in the church is the issue dominating the convention this year.

Church delegates are expected to vote on the church's position toward homosexuals Tuesday or Wednesday.

Mainline Christian congregations have struggled with homosexuality for at least the last three decades. The conflict is based in church tradition and conflicting interpretations of Scripture.

More traditional church members often quote Leviticus 20:13: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination."

Those who would like to see more liberal church policies prefer, among other passages, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

The United Methodist Church, formed in 1968, first took a stance against homosexuality in 1972 when it inserted this line into its Book of Discipline, a policy-setting "We and the United Methodist Church believe that homosexual conduct is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Patricia Miller, executive director of the Confessing Movement

document revised at the General Conference every four years: "We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."

In 1984, the church barred "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from the clergy, and in 1996 it disallowed "ceremonies to celebrate homosexual unions." However, church policy welcomes gay and lesbian congregants.

In the past two years, the church disciplined two pastors who had sanctioned same-sex unions.

In March 1999, the Rev. Gregory Dell was suspended from his Chicago church for blessing the union of two men in 1998. In November, officials defrocked Nebraska minister Jimmy Creech for performing a union ceremony for two men in North Carolina in April 1999.

But in February of this year, church officials dropped charges against more than 60 clergy members who celebrated a commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple in Sacramento, Calif.

That decision brought a storm of protest from more conservative church members, including Indiana state Sen. Patricia Miller. She is also the executive director of the Confessing Movement, which rejects "homosexual practice" in the church.

"The issue first of all is the authority of Scripture," Miller said. "We and the United Methodist Church believe that homosexual conduct is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Dell, now director of In All Things Charity, a Chicago-based ministry for gay men and lesbians, said he just doesn't understand her position.

"To divide humanity up, and mistreat parts of humanity because of their identity was just something I couldn't understand as a Christian," he said.

He, like Boal, predicted a "very painful" loss of membership after this week's vote.

But the Rev. James Rutland Wood said he thinks talk of a schism is inflammatory. Wood, an emeritus professor of sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington, is a United Methodist clergyman who published a book on the United Methodist church and homosexuality earlier this year.

"It's highly unlikely there will be a split," he said. "These are people at extremes talking. The vast middle wants to stick together."

The United Methodist Church is not the only denomination grappling with homosexuality. The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church will vote on the issue at their general conferences this summer.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America discussed the issue at its General Conference last year - and will probably discuss it again at its next gathering in 2001.

Even Mennonites, one of the country's smallest religious bodies, have dealt with the conflict.

The mainstream congregations are feeling added pressure from some more liberal congregations, such as the United Church of Christ, which already welcomed homosexual pastors and unions. Adding to the pressure, Reform rabbis voted in March to allow rabbis to bless same-sex unions.

Gary Luhr, associate director of communications for the Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky., said that when one mainstream congregation decides to welcome homosexual unions, it will put pressure on the others to do the same.

"The issues that one is facing, we are all facing to some degree," Luhr said. "Each of the old main-line denominations have this liberal-conservative split."

But Boal, who has been following the debate on the Internet, said, "It's never been like this since slavery times.

"It's too bad," she said. "Jesus came down to unite humankind, and tell people to love one another, and all these sins have been committed in his name."

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