Every four years, The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly debates the denomination’s stance on homosexuality – a debate that includes rancor, protests and a lot of pain.
“It’s like the church is a set of conjoined twins, and we’re in a fist fight,” said the Rev. Frank Beard, vice chair of the Commission on General Conference. “No one wins, and we’re just beating ourselves up.”
The Commission on General Conference, which plans the quadrennial legislative gathering, went behind closed doors with representatives from advocacy groups to try to find a new way to handle this emotional dispute that affects people’s faith and their lives.
The closed-door meeting on April 20 included representatives from five advocacy groups that have a stake in the debate. The commission is holding its last full meeting before the next General Conference in May 2016 in Portland, Oregon.
The invited groups, listed in alphabetical order, were: The Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church, Good News, Love Prevails, the Methodist Federation for Social Action and Reconciling Ministries Network. The commission paid for the representatives’ hotel accommodations and meals, but the groups were responsible for airfare to the meeting at First United Methodist Church in Portland.
Judi M. Kenaston, the commission’s chair, said the commission knew this was not “an exhaustive list” of United Methodist groups with something to say in the discussion. But the body wanted to engage at least some of the more outspoken groups.
Altogether, nine representatives met with commission members in theologically diverse small groups as well as together in joint sessions.
The stakes are high.
Three groups advocate changing what they see as the denomination’s discriminatory policies. Two groups advocate maintaining what they see as the church’s historic definition of marriage and essential doctrine. All the groups cite the Bible in support of their point of view.
“We did not make any plans for what we were going to do,” Kenaston said. “One of the things I thought was positive is that every group there made a commitment to continue in conversation. It was difficult conversation, but it’s a start.”
WHAT DOES THE CHURCH SAY
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from performing “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
Officiating at same-sex unions is a chargeable offense under the Discipline. Clergy convicted in a church court can face a loss of clergy credentials or lesser penalties. The book also allows for complaints against clergy who officiate at same-gender unions to be resolved without a trial. That has been the case with some recent high-profile complaints, including one against retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert.
The Book of Discipline states that marriage is between a man and a woman. It also affirms that all people are of sacred worth, that all are in need of the church’s ministry, and that God’s grace is available to all. The church implores congregations and families not to reject gay and lesbian members and friends.
Read full coverage of sexuality and the church.
Why a closed meeting?
The Book of Discipline — the denomination’s law book — urges open church meetings “in the spirit of openness and accountability.” Paragraph 722 makes some exceptions, including for “negotiations, when general knowledge could be harmful to the negotiation process.” That negotiation passage was the reason cited for closing the afternoon session.
“Our hope in having this negotiation is to come to some sort of consensus as a commission that will help to guide and plan for General Conference,” the Rev. Lynn Hill told the commission before the afternoon session he helped organize.
To close a meeting requires a vote of at least three-fourths of the church body. More than three-fourths of the commission voted for the closed session. Before the vote, United Methodist News Service objected to commission leaders, contending the session was not a negotiation and should be public.
Trying to avoid a repeat of 2012
The Book of Discipline since 1972 has proclaimed that all people are of sacred worth but that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Sharp debate about that position has surfaced at each subsequent General Conference.
Advocates of various theological perspectives all expressed frustration with how the debate unfolded at the 2012 General Conference.
That gathering included time for what were intended to be holy conversations to help delegates discuss the church's position on homosexuality. The time failed to have the hoped-for effect, with many LGBTQ individuals and their allies reporting incidents of bullying. The initials stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer.
Dorothee Benz said she and others told commission members that LGBTQ individuals were called “pedophiles, prostitutes, murderers.” Some couples had their relationships compared to bestiality. In many cases, presiding officers in these conversations did not intervene.
Benz is the national representative from Methodists in New Directions, an advocacy group in New York. She came at the invitation of Love Prevails and was among the advocates who called for an end of what they see as discriminatory practices. She also will be a New York Conference delegate at the 2016 General Conference.
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, agreed that the intended “holy conversations” were “not well-executed or well-planned.”
“Throughout the conference, there also seemed an attempt to delay and so you ended up at the end of General Conference with a whole backlog of petitions,” he said.
His group advocates for keeping the Book of Discipline’s current stance. The group also wants to strengthen penalties against clergy it sees as breaking covenant by violating the denomination’s ban on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy or blessing same-gender unions.
“The commission can’t change the vote,” Benz said, “but they define the process.”
Another concern is how General Conference organizers handle protests that frequently occur around the issue.
After the 2012 General Conference rejected efforts to change the church’s language regarding homosexuality, dozens of protestors poured onto the plenary floor, singing “What Does the Lord Require of You?” The demonstration started about mid-morning and ended after consultations with bishops following the lunch break.
“We know bishops are in a difficult position because after the vote on sexuality there are always people who are hurting, and they feel like they need to make a statement that gives hope to people that they represent,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News. “But they have rather consistently allowed the business of the General Conference to be overtaken by those concerns.”
Kenaston said the commission does not expect its meeting with advocates to prevent future demonstrations. But she said the meeting did offer the chance “for us to hear as a commission why that might happen.”
Points of consensus and concern
“The consensus was that we all know General Conference is an emotional and hurtful process,” Renfroe said.
“I think there is consensus that we all want to find a way to minimize the hurt and to allow everyone be heard and at the same time … to allow people to vote their conscience and keep to their principles. We happen to see some important issues in different ways,” he said.
Representatives from Love Prevails, Reconciling Ministries Network and the Methodist Federation for Social Action, said in a statement that they asked the commission “take concrete, affirmative steps to prevent the harm suffered by LGBTQ people at past General Conferences from recurring in 2016.”
“Whatever the church’s theological differences, there can be no place for spiritual violence in the church of Jesus Christ,” the group’s statement said.
Finding a workable alternative to how previous General Conferences handled the issue won’t be easy.
But living together in disagreement can sometimes be part of God’s call, said commission member Jorge Lockward, who led the group’s morning devotion on April 20.
“We know the Spirit shows up when we are together, even when we are uncomfortably together,” he said. “The kind of life God requires only happens in community and sometimes that is in difficult community.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].