Methodists stay opposed to homosexuality

Debate, demonstrations fill day after members vote on church policy

May 12, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND - There will be no gay and lesbian marriages or practicing homosexual pastors in the United Methodist Church for at least another four years - at least not according to church rules.

After an emotional debate, United Methodist leaders voted yesterday to maintain the church's opposition to homosexuality. The votes came at the denomination's General Conference, held once every four years to determine church policy.

In addition to votes banning homosexual unions and pastors, the United Methodist delegates here voted not to change language about homosexuality that many gays and lesbians find objectionable. Although the 9.6 million-member church welcomes homosexual parishioners, its official stance remains that "we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."

After 65 percent of the 992 delegates voted to retain that language yesterday morning, one woman who shouted she was a lesbian nearly jumped off the balcony in the Cleveland Convention Center hall before she was pulled back.

Later in the afternoon, 27 demonstrators, including two Methodist bishops, were arrested and charged with disrupting a lawful meeting, Cleveland police said. The protest came after 69 percent of the delegates voted to retain bans against same-gender marriage services. The demonstrators crowded the floor of the conference hall, singing "We Shall Overcome" until they were arrested and peacefully led away. They were joined in song by gay rights supporters in the audience, who stood holding hands and singing.

The delegates also voted 640-317 yesterday not to allow practicing homosexual pastors. Bishop Felton Edwin May, of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, declined to comment, except to say that he supported softening the wording about homosexuals in the Methodists' Book of Discipline, which sets the policies for the church.

Instead of "we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching," he wanted this: "We acknowledge with humility that the church has been unable to arrive at a common mind on the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian faith. ... The church seeks further understanding through continued prayer, study, and pastoral experience. In doing so, the church continues to affirm that God's grace is bestowed on all ..."

That minority opinion, when presented to delegates for a vote, failed with 61 percent voting against it. It was written by J. Philip Wogaman, senior minister of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, the church that President and Mrs. Clinton attend"Again and again we have learned as a church that we were wrong about women, about slaves, about racial minorities, about monarchy, about feudalism," Wogaman said as he rose to speak for gay rights. "Will we one day have to hold a service of repentance for our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers?" He said in an interview he supports both homosexual unions and pastors."It is about humility," he said, of the minority opinion. "It is about our inability to arrive at a common mind on the deeper meaning of scripture and the leading of the Holy Spirit."

The Rev. Roger V. Elliott, a delegate from North Carolina, spoke against the minority opinion."For those of us who believe that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, this is not an issue on which we can compromise," Elliott said. "This does not mean that we are homophobic or unloving or mean-spirited. We do not believe that homosexuality when practiced is a greater sin than others, but we do believe it is a sin."

The debate on homosexuality and the church is nothing new. United Methodists - along with virtually every mainstream Christian denomination in the world - have been struggling with the issue for at least 25 years. Two months ago, Reform Jews voted to allow rabbis to perform gay and lesbian unions for the first time. Two other major Christian denominations - the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians - will vote on homosexuality in the summer. They, like the United Methodists, do not allow practicing gay and lesbian pastors or homosexual unions.

Despite nearly 2000 other items on the agenda, homosexuality dominated this year's United Methodist General Conference from the start. Delegates said they had never seen so much activity surrounding the issue.

In the two weeks leading up to yesterday's vote, people from both sides of the debate gave speeches, passed out pamphlets, and held demonstrations outside the Cleveland Convention Center.

Wednesday morning, more than 180 people, including a Methodist bishop and the grandson of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, were arrested for blocking the entrance to the convention center to protest the church's position. The arrests were peaceful.

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