United Methodist News Service Photo by Mike DuBose
Supporters of full rights for gays and lesbians in The United Methodist Church march in protest of church policies on the floor of the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh. The UMC's history of exclusion will come up again in 2012.
While much of the pre-General Conference attention is focused on issues of administration, one perennial topic – The United Methodist Church's relationship with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people – hasn't escaped notice of United Methodists who advocate for full inclusion in the denomination.
Proponents of full inclusion are looking with some trepidation at the 2012 General Conference, since for the first time some 40 percent of delegates to the legislative assembly will be from the continent of Africa, where homosexual practice is widely condemned culturally. Meanwhile, supporters of the UMC's prohibitions against homosexual practice are taking nothing for granted, rallying their American colleagues to hold the line in concert with African delegates.
In recent years, the historic 65-35 percent margin of votes upholding the restrictive stances has narrowed to 60-40, and some votes on proposed substitution language have been even closer.
This year's debates will play out against a backdrop of increasing acceptance of same-sex marriages or civil unions across the United States.
Members of the Reconciling Ministries Network in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference this week distributed documents asking 2012 General Conference delegates to remove restrictive portions of the United Methodist Book of Discipline regarding LGBT people. These paragraphs hold homosexual practice to be "incompatible with Christian teaching," deny ordination to "self avowed practicing homosexuals" and prohibit the use of any general church funds for the promotion of the acceptance of homosexuality.
In addition, United Methodist clergy are prohibited from conducting same-sex marriages or civil unions, even in states where same-sex marriages are legal. Furthermore, such ceremonies may not be held in any United Methodist church. Last year some 900 clergy in New York vowed to conduct same-sex marriages after their state legalized such unions. After 59 clergy complained about the 900 clergy's defiance, the Council of Bishops issued a statement saying that bishops would uphold the Book of Discipline's restrictions.
Sent to United Methodist Insight one day after the state of Washington became the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage, the materials include a letter from First UMC of Tacoma, WA; a biblical exegesis supporting full inclusion; and a statement of support from the clergyman who wrote the scripture interpretation.
The letter was sent to the Council of Bishops urging support for removing restrictions against LGBT people. It noted that the congregation has been a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network for more than 10 years and has an active ministry with LGBT persons in the city.
"We have found their Christian faith strong and their service and witness to be immense assets to our life as a congregation," stated the letter. "Unfortunately the rules of our denomination put off many of these persons from formally joining the congregation and thus being eligible to serve in positions of leadership for which they are highly qualified and much needed."
The First-Tacoma letter commends a lengthy biblical exegesis supporting full inclusion of all people regardless of sexual orientation. Prepared by the Rev. Vincent Hart, a retired Pacific Northwest clergy member, the exegesis has been sent to all 600 U.S. delegates by the conference's Reconciling Ministries Network.
In a Feb. 1 statement that accompanies his exegesis, Rev. Hart said that if he were permitted to speak to the 2012 General Conference, he would make some of the following points:
"The God in whom we place our trust through Jesus Christ is a God of infinite love and often acts with compassionate surprises.
"… Today, in a manner very similar to the unexpected inclusion of the Gentiles in Acts 10-15, we see God acting in the lives of thousands of gay and lesbian persons with the same demonstration of gifts, graces, and calls to service [that] we recognize and affirm in others.
"To insist upon the rigid authority of a few ancient texts of doubtful translation and uncertain relevance, in the face of a growing body of tested knowledge about the complexities of human sexuality and in the face of abundant evidence of God’s work in the lives of many thousands today, is to risk denying God’s right to act … in radical freedom."
Reconciling Ministries Network has joined with the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and Affirmation, a caucus of United Methodists focused on LGBT concerns, to form Common Witness, a coalition intended to advocate for full inclusion of LGBT people in The United Methodist Church.
Opposed to removing restrictions against LGBT people is the Renewal and Reform Coalition, composed primarily of conservative United Methodists allied with the Confessing Movement and the Good News evangelical caucus.
The denomination is among the last mainline Protestant church to maintain prohibitions against LGBT people's participation in church life and governance. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church all either have removed restrictive policies or adopted full-inclusion statements. Each denomination has some kind of formal covenant or informal relationship with the UMC, including sharing ordained clergy in certain ministry settings.
United Methodists have been debating the question of homosexuality almost since the denomination was formed in 1968.
Text of Rev. Vincent Hart's exegesis, "A Biblical Basis for Full Inclusion Today."