The decades-old discussion of sexuality in the United Methodist Church will include a new wrinkle — transgender laypeople and clergy — when the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination meets next week in Texas.

Methodists will meet for their quadrennial General Conference from April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth, Texas. Beyond sexuality, they are expected to discuss possible divestment from companies operating in Israel, questions related to their increasingly international membership, and possible statements on the Iraq war.

Resolutions related to sexuality and gender number in the hundreds, but an increasing number deal with transgender people after the church's highest court permitted Baltimore pastor Drew Phoenix to remain in his pulpit. Gender change had not been addressed in the church's constitution, the Judicial Council ruled last October.

In light of that decision, some conservative Methodists now want to see church rules codify that transgender people should not be allowed as clergy.

"It illustrates that the proposed liberalization of the church's standard doesn't stop with homosexuality," said Mark Tooley, director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy's UMAction, a conservative group.

"We proposed legislation that would, in effect, disapprove of a sex-change operation and would affirm biological gender as a divine gift."

Affirmation, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Methodists, is fighting those efforts, saying such a move doesn't reflect a denomination whose slogan is "Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors."

"I'm concerned about the church, that it's going down a path of exclusion and that people like Drew who have clearly exhibited the gifts and graces of the ministry … need to be able to have the right to serve," said Diane DeLap, an Affirmation spokeswoman and a transgender laywoman who formerly was a male pastor in evangelical churches.

"The idea that … because we are transgender we can automatically be excluded from the ministry is, to me, personally offensive."

Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, president of the church's Council of Bishops, said the transgender discussion will be a first for a General Conference. She couldn't predict its outcome, but she hopes delegates can move beyond it to direct their attention to a broader agenda addressing issues such as global health and church leadership.

"We live in a world that's facing a lot of very complicated and sensitive issues," said Huie. "I think many United Methodists believe that God's calling us to play an important role as we go about dealing with those global and national issues and that role … supersedes the variety of points of view on a whole number of social issues."

Even as Methodists say they want to maintain overall unity, there continues to be disagreement over whether the church should change current language in its Book of Discipline that calls homosexual behavior "incompatible with Christian teaching."

"Probably more than anything else, what will take place is a generational change in terms of attitudes toward gay and lesbian people," predicted Jim Winkler, general secretary of the church's General Board of Church and Society.

But Patricia Miller, executive director of the Confessing Movement, a group of conservative United Methodists, said: "I know a number of young people who are very supportive of the current Discipline."

Divestment action pulled

Last week, the denomination's social policy agency pulled a proposed resolution that would have withdrawn church investments in Caterpillar Inc. because the company supplies bulldozers to Israel.

The Methodists' General Board of Church and Society had submitted a petition to the church's upcoming General Conference but withdrew it April 17 after Caterpillar agreed to talks with church leaders.

Critics complain that Caterpillar machines are used to raze Palestinian homes and olive groves. The company maintains it opposes "illegal or immoral use of any Caterpillar equipment," but will not discontinue sales.

About $5 million of the total $17 billion United Methodist investment portfolio is tied to Caterpillar.

Jim Winkler, who directs the Methodists' Washington office, said a pastor in Peoria, Ill., who counts Caterpillar CEO James Owens as a parishioner set up the talks between the two sides.

"Caterpillar cannot monitor the use of every piece of its equipment around the world," the company said in a statement. "However, we recognize the responsibility companies have to encourages the constructive use of their products."

Church delegates will still consider other proposals to divest from companies involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Wayne Miller, a spokesman for the Washington office, said none of those petitions targets a specific company.

Miller said those remaining petitions "deserve careful consideration by the delegates."

The General Conference will also likely consider whether to issue a statement about the Iraq war. While some Methodists have submitted proposals calling for prayer for Iraq, others urge a pullout by American forces.

Related Elsewhere:

See today's related Christianity Today article about the UMC general conference, "Methodist Restructuring May Empower Non-U.S. Churches — Or Silence Them."

In February, Christianity Today covered "The Transgender Moment."