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May 11, 2000 GC-066

United Methodists affirm church laws on homosexuality

CLEVELAND (UMNS) – Amid demonstrations, singing and arrests, representatives of the United Methodist Church voted May 11 to uphold the denomination’s current positions on homosexuality.

The delegates of General Conference, the denomination’s highest legislative body, also retained a prohibition against pastors performing same-sex union ceremonies, but moved that prohibition to a different section of The Book of Discipline. The 992 delegates from around the world are meeting through May 12.

Thirty people were arrested after they surrounded the presiding bishop in protest of the votes. The protesters, who were removed peaceably by police, included clergy members and two bishops – Susan Morrison of Albany, N.Y., and C. Joseph Sprague of Chicago. It was the second time in as many days that Sprague had been arrested.

By a nearly two-thirds majority, delegates maintained the church’s position of not condoning the practice of homosexuality and continued the exclusion of homosexuals from ordained ministry. Those votes sparked the day’s first demonstration on the floor of the Cleveland Convention Center.

Delegates voted 628 to 337 in favor of retaining the current language in Paragraph 65G of the Book of Discipline, which affirms God’s grace is available to all people but states that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Following the vote, protesters entered the floor and balcony.

With a similar majority, the body also voted to retain the rule that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" cannot be accepted into ordained ministry. That vote stood at 640 in favor of retaining the language and 317 opposed.

Minority reports were presented for both pieces of legislation. Both were defeated.

The Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, presented the minority report for the legislation dealing with Paragraph 65G. The report proposed removing the last two sentences in the paragraph, which state that the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." The report would have added a passage reflecting that United Methodists are not of a common mind on homosexuality. The new wording would also state: "Many consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. Others believe it acceptable when practiced in a context of human covenantal faithfulness."

"It is not a violation of conscience to admit there is a difference between us," said Wogaman, pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington.

Roger Elliott, a delegate from North Carolina, spoke against the minority report. "This is not an issue on which we can compromise," he said. "We don’t believe it is a greater sin than others, but it is a sin." The report was defeated 585 to 376.

A demonstration of protest followed, and the delegates had a recess. After the session resumed, Richard Parker, a delegate from the New York Annual Conference, made a motion for General Conference to declare a moratorium on current language regarding homosexuality to allow a quadrennium of healing and discernment in the life of the church. "We’ve had enough pain today around these issues. ... What we need now is loving, care and respect for each other," he said.

Delegates rejected an amendment to his motion that would have required the United Methodist Board of Discipleship to develop a plan for discernment and dialogue to engage the church on matters of homosexuality.

A delegate from Zimbabwe asked the delegates not to "betray" the church in Africa by supporting homosexuality. The Parker motion was defeated 637 to 320.

In the afternoon session, delegates voted 646 to 294 to retain the language currently found in the denomination’s Social Principles regarding same-sex unions. The last sentence in Paragraph 65C reads: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

Before that vote was taken, the Rev. Emery Percell, Northern Illinois Conference, asked delegates to consider a minority report that would change the word "shall" to "should." The purpose, he explained, was "to make it something other than a chargeable offense."

Percell is a member of an annual conference where one pastor, the Rev. Greg Dell, already has been convicted in a church trial of violating the prohibition. Percell stressed the destruction, trauma and polarity caused by the process.

The Rev. Don Fado, a California-Nevada Conference pastor who performed a same-sex union ceremony in Sacramento, supported the change in language "so people would be free to do ministry where they are."

Referring to a same-sex ceremony that he conducted – which led to the filing of a complaint against him and more than 60 other pastors in that conference – Fado said, "Some of you feel we broke covenant to do this. I hope our covenant is more than one rule in the Discipline." The California-Nevada Conference’s investigative committee later dismissed the complaint against Fado and the other pastors.

But the Rev. Paul Leeland, North Carolina Conference, argued that the church has an obligation to define how faith and order are to be lived out. "This is also a defining moment," he explained, "It expresses how our denomination identifies a common ground that makes us a family."

The Rev. Robert Hayes, chairman of the Faith and Order Committee, also urged defeat of the minority report. Hayes presented the committee’s recommendation to retain the same-sex union prohibition. He said that substituting "should" for "shall" would be ambiguous and unacceptable. "If we would allow a change at this point, the church would have no leverage in such cases," he added.

In a separate action, delegates voted 670 to 222 to move the sentence prohibiting pastors from conducting homosexual unions from Paragraph 65C in the Social Principles to Paragraph 332, "Special Provisions," under the section, "Ministry of the Ordained" in the Book of Discipline. The original petition recommended retaining the language in two sections of the Discipline but was twice amended.

 

The vote came after the group rejected a minority report delivered with an emotional plea by Stephen Frantz of the Oregon-Idaho Conference. The minority report would have amended a sentence in Paragraph 65G of the Social Principles to read: "Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with some Christian teaching, we affirm that God’s grace is available to all."

An attempt to change the word "we" to "most" in that sentence also was rejected.

By consent, delegates added a sentence after the incompatibility sentence in 65G stating, "We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends."

A petition aimed at continuing the dialogue among those on all sides of the homosexuality issue was approved by more than 80 percent of the delegates. The dialogues would be organized by the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

Delegates considered several petitions regarding Paragraph 806.12 in the Discipline, but let stand language that restricts the use of church funds "to promote the acceptance of homosexuality."

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--Barbara Nissen and Linda Bloom

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