The legalization of same-sex marriage in some states and countries is complicating a long-simmering debate on how the church ministers to gays and lesbians.
The challenge, say bishops from areas where same-sex marriage is legal, is encouraging dialogue and mutual respect among all parties in the debate in the pews while at the same time upholding church law.
"Even though people are coming from across the theological spectrum, we trust that they are willing to engage in conversation with integrity, respect and sensitivity," said New York Area Bishop Jeremiah Park, whose episcopal area includes Connecticut. "And that's something we can celebrate. We are not in a perfect place, but at least I see a sincere intention to have holy conferencing on an issue like this."
At present, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C., grant civil marriages for same-sex couples. Outside the United States, 10 countries also offer legal recognition to same-sex couples.
During this week's Council of Bishops meeting, bishops from areas where same-sex marriage is legal met for a private lunch to discuss how their congregations are dealing with the issue.
"The conversation was centered around that as more states make it legal, more congregations will be involved (in the debate), and we need to find a way to respond," Park said.
The United Methodist Church opposes same-sex unions and forbids its pastors from performing such ceremonies or allowing them to take place in United Methodist churches.
Delegates pray prior to a vote on issues related to homosexuality at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS file photo by Maile Bradfield.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, states that the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." The Judicial Council, the denomination's top court, ruled in 2009 that it is a chargeable offense for United Methodist clergy to perform ceremonies celebrating same-sex unions, even in states where such unions are legal.
However, some United Methodist congregations that welcome homosexual members are debating how to handle marriage requests. On Sept. 26, members of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington voted 367 to 8 to allow same-gender marriages to be performed in its building.
Following Foundry's vote, Washington Area Bishop John R. Schol released a statement to clergy and lay leaders in the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference. "In the midst of these difficult matters of the church," he wrote, "I will do all I can to be fair and compassionate as I work to maintain the unity and witness of the church."
But as a bishop, he noted, he is responsible for upholding church law and "will process and follow through with any complaint or charge against a United Methodist clergyperson of the Baltimore-Washington Conference who performs a same-gender wedding or holy union."
At the Council of Bishops meeting, he reiterated that stand. "The Book of Discipline is very clear," he said.
The subject of same-sex unions has sparked debate every four years at the gathering of General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body. Delegates have consistently voted not to change the Book of Discipline. But neither supporters nor opponents of same-sex marriage expect the debate to end.
In the United States, public support for same-sex unions has been growing over the past decade, but that support is still in the minority. This year, a Pew Research Center poll found 42 percent in favor of same-sex marriages and 48 percent in opposition. That marks the first time in 15 years of Pew Research polling that fewer than half opposed such marriages.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]