The United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland last week was the scene of many dramatic protests and arrests, but no dramatic change.Ultimately, current church policy on homosexuality was reaffirmed by two thirds of the delegates, while more conservative and liberal appeals were consistently voted down. Delegates began by rejecting a proposal requiring clergy to sign a statement that homosexuality is not God's perfect will for individuals, by a vote of 705 to 210. But on May 11, the delegates voted 628 to 337 to retain the current language in the Book of Discipline stating "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." The current language and standards of the Book of Discipline which forbid ministers to perform same sex unions were also upheld 646 to 294. The Judicial Council, the denomination's supreme court, also maintained current structure by reaffirming the Book of Discipline as the law of the United Methodist Church. The Judicial Council warned that individual conferences may not "legally negate, ignore or violate," the Book of Discipline's mandate to refrain from performing same sex unions without incurring the consequences outlined in the Book of Discipline.The council's ruling, in part, came as a response to the decision made by leaders of the California-Nevada Annual Conference not to prosecute the 68 clergy who participated in a same sex ceremony for two Methodist lesbians (ct, March 1, 1999, p.17).The votes took place in a heated environment fanned by the civil disobedience protests of homosexual rights advocates.

Plagues in the Church?

Mel White's Soulforce coalition organized a protest of about 350 Methodist supporters to draw attention to "the homophobia, racism, and colonialism that plagues our church."About 200 protesters were arrested for blocking the convention center drive, including Chicago-area leader Gregory Dell, who is still under suspension because of the same sex union he performed in 1998, and Jimmy Creech a former United Methodist clergyman who lost his orders after a similar charge in 1999. More arrests took place the next day, when a group of about 30 pastors and delegates disrupted legislative proceedings. Those arrested included Bishops C. Joseph Sprague of Chicago and Susan Morrison of Albany, New York. This marks the first time in recent Methodist history delegates of the general conference have been forcibly removed from the floor."Something greater is happening in Methodism, but the battle is being played out on the issue of homosexuality," says Andrea Gancarz, a former lesbian who now is involved with Transforming Congregations, a United Methodist movement to help people who wish to leave homosexual lifestyles. "The larger issue is the authority of scripture, and who gets to interpret what the Bible says and stands for."Gancarz believes that many delegates are uncomfortable with the thought of excluding anyone from the body of Christ, yet they are also uncomfortable, "fully affirming actions that Paul lists alongside sins like adultery and thieving in 1 Corinthians 6:9. "Such perspective is underscored by the sentence delegates voted to add after the Book of Discipline's incompatibility phrase: "We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends." Delegates also voted not to support any programs to help people leave or renounce homosexuality.

Will the Church Split?

Because the United Methodist church is one of the largest mainline denominations in America, and because a large percentage of heterosexual Methodist leaders accept and support homosexuality, it is likely that the church will continue to be a prime battleground for affirmation of homosexual behavior as an acceptable lifestyle."We do not believe this will divide the church," Bishop Robert Morgan of Louisville Kentucky told the United Methodist News Service after the second round of protests and arrests. "Our commitment is to stay together."

Jody Veenker is Editorial Resident for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

The most in-depth reporting on the General Conference, of course, is from the United Methodist News Service.Other coverage (mainly focusing on the homosexuality issues) is available from the Chicago Tribune (which also has a commentary on the protests), the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and the Associated Press.