United Methodist News Service Photo by Mike DuBose
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.”