Commentary: For the sake of unity

Talk of schism in the United Methodist Church has increased, following the recent trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference.

But there is a way to preserve unity for the foreseeable future, if the General Conference of 2004 is willing to make a few changes in the 2004 Book of Discipline.

If enough delegates can agree to these changes (and of course the balance of power rests with the “moderate” voters), then the denomination will:

  • Allow for a cooling-off period about a volatile issue.
  • End almost all church trials over questions related to ordination and holy unions.
  • Affirm that West Coast annual conferences and similarly minded conferences, as well as local congregations such as Glide Memorial in San Francisco, are vital parts of the United Methodist communion.
  • Guarantee central conferences (the church’s regional units in Africa, Asia and Europe) that they need not fear changing mores and moral standards in the United States.
  • Allow people entering the ministry to be true to their convictions about homosexuality, whatever they have come to believe, since they will be able to relate to an annual conference where they will feel at home.
  • Open the door for ministers who feel isolated where they are because of their beliefs about homosexuality to transfer to conferences where their concept of ministry is affirmed.
  • Encourage open dialogue in those annual conferences where a variety of beliefs exist about homosexuality.

The first change, primarily symbolic, would be to replace the language condemning “the practice of homosexuality” in the nonbinding Social Principles (Paragraph 161.G) with a statement that the church is not of one mind on this issue.

Among the many petitions along this line, the one from the California-Pacific Annual Conference (40078) is noteworthy for its spirit of respect for divergent opinion. While removing the condemnatory language, it maintains “the right of families and churches to offer renewal through the transformation of sexual identity,” no small concession when one remembers that many gay persons and their friends view transforming ministries as of little or no value.

At the level of church law, delegates will need to give annual conferences the final say on matters of ordination and same-sex ceremonies.

In the former area, it is a matter of extending a principle that already exists to include the final decision on ordaining gay or lesbian or transgender clergy. Two petitions open the door for modifying Paragraph 304.3 along these lines (40701 and 40077). In the latter area, the Troy Conference has proposed qualifying the prohibition against “(c)eremonies that celebrate homosexual unions” (Paragraph 332.6) by adding “except within annual conferences that have authorized such ceremonies” (Petition 41082).

Without some kind of accommodation along these or similar lines, the United Methodist Church will, it seems likely, continue to make national and international headlines over the next four years with one high-profile church trial after another. But if we place many of the concerns related to homosexuality on the backburner for a while, recognizing that sincere Christians disagree on this issue, then there is a chance that our church might merit an occasional news report about something else — like its witness on poverty and world peace or perhaps its rapid growth in some parts of the world. We could even do worse than a complete absence of headlines for a while!

*Martin is a retired elder in the Arkansas Annual Conference and professor of religion emeritus at Oklahoma City University.

News media contact: (412) 325-6080 during General Conference, April 27-May 7. After May 10: (615) 742-5470.

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