United Methodist News Service Photo by Mike DuBose
A communion chalice, broken at the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh in protest of the church's stance on homosexuality was mended and returned as a symbol healing to the altar.
Impassioned pleas, protests and prayers. Broken chalice, broken hearts. An altar draped in black, a same-sex wedding, arrests, amends and a statement of unity.
At each General Conference for more than 40 years, The United Methodist Church has debated its position on homosexuality.
Church law states all persons are children of God and of sacred worth but homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. Gays cannot be ordained and United Methodist pastors may not perform same-sex marriages.
When the 2012 General Conference convenes in Tampa, Fla., April 24-May 4, the language and laws about homosexuality will be up for debate once more.
Will gay rights be debated with the same fervor in 2012?
Complicating matters is that while the stance against homosexuality has softened in some quarters in the United States, the church’s worldwide growth is in the Philippines and in Africa, where the support for an outright ban can be more stringent and backed by the force of law. In Liberia, for example, “voluntary sodomy” is punishable by a year in prison.
At the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland, more than 200 people were arrested, including two bishops, and charged with “disrupting a lawful meeting” when protesters moved to the platform area after the vote to retain the church’s stance on homosexuality.
In a particularly emotional moment, one non-United Methodist protester threatened to leap from the balcony.
A broken chalice became a symbol of the body’s division at the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh. Rumors of a proposal to form a task force to study splitting the church ended with the delegates holding hands, singing and approving a resolution affirming the unity of the church.
At the 2008 assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, two lesbians celebrated a marriage across the street from the convention center. After the vote to retain the church stance on homosexuality, some delegates, bishops and visitors draped a black cloth over the altar and their faces, and everyone left the center to find chalk outlines of bodies on the sidewalks.
Pledges and a trial
Activity has been stirring since the 2008 assembly. More than 900 active and retired clergy signed a pledge calling on the church to remove its ban on homosexual clergy. In response, more than 2,500 clergy and 12,000 laity signed letters urging the Council of Bishops to take a public stand and uphold the denomination’s lawbook.
After their November meeting, the bishops issued a statement declaring their commitment to their covenant “to uphold The Book of Discipline as established by General Conference.” The statement also acknowledged the denomination’s “deep disagreements over homosexuality.”
In June 2011, the church wrestled with the issue in a public church trial for the seventh time in 20 years. The Rev. Amy DeLong, a lesbian clergy member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference, was charged with violating the church’s ban on non-celibate, gay clergy and its prohibition against clergy officiating at same-sex unions.
Acquitted of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” DeLong was found guilty of celebrating a same-gender union. The trial court suspended her from ministerial functions for 20 days and sentenced her to a yearlong process to “restore the broken clergy covenant relationship.”
The sentence marked the first time in 20 years in which a United Methodist elder was not stripped of clergy credentials or placed on indefinite suspension in a case related to issues of homosexuality. Although the Rev. Greg Dell was initially suspended indefinitely in 1999 after performing a same-sex union ceremony, the North Central Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals later amended the suspension to one year.
The United Methodist Church is a global church with a membership of more than 12 million. While the membership in the United States has been declining, membership is increasing in Africa and the Philippines.
The statements of lifelong United Methodist Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf represent the views of many Africans.
She said she will uphold laws in Liberia criminalizing homosexuality.
Johnson Sirleaf, who addressed the 2008 United Methodist General Conference and last year was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, stood by her country’s law of up to a year’s imprisonment for “voluntary sodomy.” She also endorsed two new laws that would make sexual advances toward a person of the same sex punishable by up to five years imprisonment and gay marriage punishable by up to 10 years.
"We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve. We’re going to keep to our traditional values,” she told The Telegraph of London, England.
During the debate at the 2008 General Conference, the Rev. Eddie Fox, world director of evangelism, The World Methodist Council, said that leaving out the statement that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching would be confusing for members of the church outside the United States.
“I have seen and experienced the pain and the brokenness in parts of our global movement whenever our church has failed to hold fast to the essential teaching of the Holy Scripture,” he said.
Will 2012 be different?
When the 2012 United Methodist General Conference convenes in April, members of unofficial United Methodist organizations on various sides of the issue will be lining the halls and entrances handing out pamphlets for and against the church’s stance.
In January during the pre-General Conference news briefing, Sue Laurie, one of the women who was married during the 2008 meeting, told a panel discussing holy conferencing that she was more concerned about “inflammatory silence than inflammatory language.”
“Silence maintains the status quo. It hurts the church. Silence stops that transformation. This will be my fifth General Conference; we are tired of telling our stories. Some of the hurtful language I have heard just now is ‘we need more time.’”
Since the 1972 General Conference, when the phrase “homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching” was added to the denomination’s law book, emotions have run high, tears have been shed and people on all sides of the debate have been hurt.
Are lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgendered people deliberately defying God’s word or just being the person God has called them to be?
Where will the discussion end this time?
Kathy L. Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.