Once again, United Methodism retains its stance on human sexuality

In the midst of vocal protests, silent demonstrations, and the most expensive and elaborate pro-homosexual lobbying effort ever rolled out for a United Methodist General Conference, delegates in Tampa retained the denomination’s historic view on marriage and sexuality.

On Thursday, May 3, delegates to the 2012 General Conference in Tampa rejected two amendments to the United Methodist Social Principles that would have declared that the global denomination holds two different views regarding “whether homosexual practice is contrary to the will of God.”

Amid two hours of passionate debate and silent protest throughout the convention center, there were three separate votes on the two amendments to change the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. All three votes failed in percentages ranging from 54-46 percent to 61-39 percent margins.

With those votes, the General Conference retained the language in the 2008 Book of Discipline (Para 161F) that states, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

“Despite a lavish and relentless lobbying effort, United Methodism once again took a stand to be the last remaining mainline denomination to uphold biblical standards in regard to marriage and sexuality,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of Good News and coordinator of the Renewal and Reform Coalition at the 2012 General Conference.

A proposal from the Global Young People’s Convocation and Legislative Assembly to replace Para 161 F was presented by the Rev. James Howell of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. Howell represented the minority viewpoint on the Church and Society B legislative committee. The petition had been rejected by the committee by a 43-33 vote.

“We have said for a long time we do not condone homosexuality,” said Howell, “but they are here, they are in our delegations, they are serving in our churches. They keep coming back to a church that says no to them. There is a kind of miracle in that.”

Following Howell’s presentation, the Rev. Adam Hamilton of the Kansas East Annual Conference presented a substitute petition that was co-written with the Rev. Mike Slaughter of the West Ohio Annual Conference.

Their proposed amendment would have stated, “All in the United Methodist Church affirm that homosexual persons are people of sacred worth and all are welcome in our churches, but we disagree as a people regarding whether homosexual practice is contrary to the will of God.”

The Rev. Maxie Dunnam of the Kentucky Annual Conference spoke against the substitution, “We do live in a world of gray, but Christians are called to holiness. I know that holiness without love is not God’s kind of holiness. But love without holiness is not God’s kind of love. Our present position in the Discipline includes both holiness with love and love with holiness.”

Speaking in favor of the substitute, Jen Ihlo of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference said, “I am a lesbian and a child of God and I strongly urge the body to support this compromise language so that gay youth … will recognize that the church loves them and God loves them and the violence and pain and suicide will stop.”

“We disagree, and we do need tolerance. But for some, tolerance means all beliefs are equal, and that is not true,” said the Rev. Jim Cowart of the South Georgia Annual Conference in a speech against the substitute. “We love you just like you are, and we love you enough to tell you what the scriptures say.”

All of this debate and voting took place while dozens of protesters wearing rainbow stoles silently lined the edges of the delegate area, staring at the delegates.

The General Conference delegates voted 513-439 (53.9 to 46.1 percent) not to substitute the original motion with the Hamilton-Slaughter language. A follow-up amendment to the Howell petition failed by a similar margin.

Finally, the original motion by Howell to replace Para 161 F was defeated 572-368 (60.9 to 39.1 percent). This compares with a final vote of 501-417 (54.6 to 45.4 percent) in 2008 that reaffirmed United Methodism’s current position and turned down similar “agree to disagree” language.

Expensive lobbying effort. On Valentine’s Day 2010, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and several other secular groups joined forces with ten mainline gay caucuses to launch the Believe Out Loud Campaign (BOL).

At the 2012 General Conference, the Love Your Neighbor-Common Witness Coalition’s campaign was the United Methodist version of BOL. The coalition, which rented an enormous air-conditioned tent across the street from the Tampa Convention Center, was a joint effort of Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Methodist Federation for Social Action, Native American International Caucus of United Methodists, National Association of Asian American United Methodists, and Reconciling Ministries Network.

“According to the Reconciling Ministries Network’s online program manual, BOL trained volunteers hoped to meet with all 600 United States delegates to General Conference to tell their stories and advocate for full inclusion of LGBT persons,” reports the Rev. Karen Booth, director of Transforming Congregations and author of Forgetting How to Blush.

“Many of these same volunteers were onsite in Tampa engaging in protest and distributing a multi-page daily paper that is published by former GLAAD staffer, Ann Craig,” said Booth. “GLAAD’s web site has also announced that staffers are onsite to coordinate the Common Witness Coalition’s media campaign.”

Understandably, the well-coordinated lobbying effort required vast sums of funding, most of it coming from three large funding institutions that have strong commitments to gay rights: the Arcus Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. According to the most recent public financial information, the following donations were given to pro-gay “religion and values” initiatives: $20 million from Arcus; $10 million from the Haas Fund; and almost $4 million from the Carpenter Foundation.

“The Reconciling Ministries Network alone received over a million dollars for programming, training in grass roots organization, media communications and promotional branding,” says Booth.

Walls of demonstrators. As delegates left the convention center on April 26 – only two days into the General Conference – they had to exit between lines of demonstrators. Hundreds of protesters wearing rainbow stoles stood silently in sympathy with allegations of mistreatment of gay and lesbian delegates during a truncated session of what was supposed to be a “holy conversation” on human sexuality held the day before.

The demonstration accompanied a statement to the plenary session by Mark Miller, an openly gay delegate from the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, in which he claimed, “We were bullied emotionally, spiritually, and physically.” He cited no specific allegations.

“The need for authentic conversation about human sexuality is so important,” said Miller. “However, the process that we attempted yesterday failed us. It failed because a lack of leadership and oversight because the process did not respect people and did not plan for the care of those who were hurt by the process…. Yesterday, the church did us harm but when we’re harmed the church is harmed.” Miller then asked delegates who supported gays and lesbians to stand.

Bishop Robert Hayes Jr. of Oklahoma, who was presiding over the evening session, responded to Miller’s statement. “I will be the first to acknowledge to you that yesterday there were a lot of things that were not right,” said Hayes. “The time frame to which legislative committees had to be elected was not right. It was a sincere attempt to try holy conferencing and I respectfully acknowledge your point of order.”

Upon Miller’s request, Hayes prayed for the situation. “We pray for healing for our church and we pray, Gracious God, that you would some way use us as your instruments of peace so that we may come to some kind of understanding that we are your children, made in your image.”

Invading the bar of the conference. Shortly after the third vote was cast on the morning of May 3 in failed attempts to change the Social Principles to declare that United Methodism holds two different views regarding “whether homosexual practice is contrary to the will of God,” more than one hundred demonstrators entered the area designated only for delegates. Most wearing rainbow-colored stoles, the protesters had previously lined the outside of the draped off area of the conference.

As delegates exited the area for their morning break, the protesters had already begun singing and gathering around a center table to serve communion to their supporters. When the delegates returned from their break, the protesters refused to leave and continued singing over the presiding bishop’s request, as well as throughout another report.

When it was clear that the group would not respond to the request of the Presiding Bishop Michael Coyner, he declared an early recess for lunch. “I think you’re actually hurting your point,” Coyner said to those who refused to disperse.

During the lengthy lunch break, several bishops met with the Rev. Amy DeLong – the leader of the protesters – in order to attempt to negotiate with her demands. According to The United Methodist Reporter, the protest on the floor “ended after bishops agreed to let an openly gay pastor offer a prayer.”

The bishops invited the Rev. Frank Wulf to the main podium to offer a prayer. “Oh God rest upon this General Conference, give us wisdom to understand, to interpret, to know each other,” he said. “But most of all God, give us hope for the future, hope that the good news of your gospel may break forth upon us.”

After his prayer, the demonstrators left the center of the convention center and allowed the General Conference to continue.

After negotiating with DeLong, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, the president of the Council of Bishops, offered the following words to the assembly. “Dear sisters and brothers who are gay and lesbian, transgender and bisexual people, you have been hurt by actions of the General Conference, and by the polity of The United Methodist Church,” she said. “I feel your pain. We see your pain.”

According to The United Methodist Reporter, DeLong and the protesters also told the bishops that they wanted all petitions related to sexuality – including the majority committee report directing The United Methodist Church to end its relationship with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) – to be moved to the end of the agenda so that they “will not be dealt with at this General Conference.”

A bishop close to the situation assured Good News that a deal to intentionally delay the vote on RCRC was not agreed upon with the protesters.

Leaders of the Renewal and Reform Coalition were asked to participate in a meeting with the demonstrators, three bishops, General Conference officials, and the Calendaring Committee. The predominant sense of the meeting was to postpone all the other business items related to homosexuality, hoping that there would not be enough time to bring them to a vote.

“We take no pleasure in the hurt suffered by brothers and sisters in the midst of this debate,” explained the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News. “That is why we agreed to postpone further votes on human sexuality, knowing that the church had already voted to uphold our Scriptural position and that position would continue to stand.”

As it turned out, the plenary session did not act upon an estimated 77 calendar items, including all the remaining items related to homosexuality. All of the church’s current language prohibiting the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, preventing clergy from celebrating same-sex unions or marriages, and forbidding the expenditure of church funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality remains the same for the next four years.

For the eleventh quadrennium, escalating protests and impassioned debate had failed to change the church’s perspective on homosexual behavior. With the projected membership increase in conservative areas of the church (especially in Africa) and the decline in membership of more liberal areas of the church, prospects for a future change appear unlikely.

–Good News Editorial Team