Annual Conferences voice opposition to General Conference action

By Kathy L. Gilbert

Promises of support and prayers for healing for gays, lesbians, transgender and bisexual people are coming from bishops, pastors and laity as The United Methodist Church held annual conferences around the globe.

At the Iowa Conference June 2–5, two documents with hundreds of signatures expressed compassion for gays. More than 500 signed a “Do No Harm” covenant stating the de- nomination’s top lawmaking body made decisions that violated John Wesley’s first General Rule by failing to acknowledge that members of The United Methodist Church are divided on homosexuality.

The covenant states, “When following the Book of Discipline requires us to do harm by discriminating against, diminish- ing, or demeaning our sisters and brothers in the family of faith, we are in an impossible situation and will be faithful to the law as interpreted by Jesus rather than comply with the Book of Discipline.”

A second document, “Covenant of Conscience,” is in support of same-sex marriage.

Clergy signers of that document pledged “in accordance with our ordination vows to ‘seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people,’ commit to marrying without bias or discrimination all people who seek the blessing of the church and are prepared to assume the privileges and responsibilities of a loving, committed, covenant relationship.”

Laity signers pledged to support clergy in living out their duty.

The 2012 General Conference was April 24 – May 4 in Tampa. General Conference is the only body that speaks for the denomination. During the 2012 assembly, the church maintained its language that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” that gays cannot be ordained and clergy will not be allowed to perform same-sex marriages.

“Let it begin with me”

In his address to the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, Bishop John Schol (pictured above) said he believes “gay and lesbian people are children of God … (who) can live in loving, committed relationships that reflect God’s grace-filled love.

“I do not understand all of the mysteries of human sexuality,” Schol said. “I believe that our sexuality is a gift from the Cre- ator to be shared in loving, committed relationships.”

Schol said he knew there would be those who disagree but he wanted open and honest conversations.

“I want you to know what I think and feel. … So let it begin with me.”

Minnesota opposes marriage amendment

Members of the Minnesota Annual Conference, meeting May 30 – June 1, voted to send a resolution opposing a proposed amendment to the Minnesota state constitution that only a union of one man and one woman would be recognized as marriage. The proposal will be on the November ballot.

Those submitting the resolution stated that civil rights such as health insurance, equal taxation, retirement benefits and health-care directives are based on one’s marital status.

“Hundreds of thousands of current and potential United Methodists in Minnesota would benefit from equal protection of civil rights,” the resolution’s sponsors said.

The resolution is advisory and does not obligate individual United Methodists or their churches.

Day of Prayer and Healing

During the Greater New Jersey Conference, members approved a resolution making September 30 a conference-wide “Day of Prayer and Healing” for those hurt during “divisive conversations” around human sexuality.

Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar will write a prayer of healing and discernment for use by local churches.

Disagree about disagreeing

Bishop Robert Hoshibata of the Portland (Oregon) area wrote “A Post-Mortem on GC 2012,” after he went through “kind of a mourning period” after the worldwide assembly.

Hoshibata left the stage where the bishops were seated to walk with those gathered on the floor of General Conference during the heated debate on human sexuality. Non-voting guests were not allowed inside the area reserved for voting delegates.

“I could not remain seated in the section on the stage reserved for bishops. I felt God tugging at me to leave the stage and join the many non-voting persons who were demonstrating silently their distress at the continual efforts to disenfranchise the LGBT community,” he wrote.

Hoshibata said he wanted to demonstrate there are bishops who support the efforts of the church to include all persons.

An effort to get the church to “agree we disagree” was defeated during General Conference. Schol and Hoshibata cited that decision as part of why they were speaking out.

“I was disappointed that General Conference could not even agree to disagree,” Schol said.“I think there is a Christ-like path that we, as The United Methodist Church, have failed to find.”

Schol said the church’s stand is keeping nominally and non-religious young people out of the church.

Kathy Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville. Information for this report came from annual conference reports submitted by conference communicators.

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Additional Annual Conference actions

1. The Wisconsin Annual Conference clergy session on May 30 adopted a plan proposed by the Rev. Amy DeLong to form a Conference Clergy Covenant Team, charged with the task of developing a Clergy Covenant for Wisconsin Conference clergy. The covenant would be based on a number of principles, including that clergy would “seek protection of and equality for the vulnerable/minority by ending participation in discrimination (specifically against people).” This provision is being challenged through a question of law, which will be ruled on by Bishop Linda Lee and reviewed by the Judicial Council. The plan itself was developed by DeLong in fulfillment of her “sentence” for being found guilty in June 2011 of performing a same-sex union, violating the provisions of the Book of Discipline. She was directed by the trial court to “initiate a written document outlining procedures for clergy in order to help resolve issues that harm the clergy covenant, create an adversarial spirit, or lead to future clergy trials.”

2. The New York Annual Conference, meeting June 6–9, ad- opted a resolution stating that “the continuing denial of full access to all the rights and privileges of church membership in

The United Methodist Church is causing deep spiritual harm to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and is a threat to us all.” Citing a long history of support for gay rights, the conference resolved “that the New York Annual Conference reaffirm its historic commitment to the civil and ecclesiastical rights and privileges of all persons, including LGBT persons, and declare its passionate opposition to continued distinctions of Church law that restrict the rights and privileges of LGBT people in The United Methodist Church.” The resolution further states “that clergy, lay persons and congregations … may feel bound by conscience to offer the ministries and sacraments of the church to all persons on an equal basis” (a reference to performing same-sex marriages, which are now legally recognized by New York and Connecticut). The resolution encourages “cabinet members, bishops and members of boards and agencies … to exercise their consciences … when called upon to enforce unjust laws, policies and procedures.” Finally, the resolution recognizes that “individuals who take punitive actions against others for offering the sacraments and rituals of the Church on an equal basis do so contrary to the spirit and declarations of the New York Annual Conference and risk grave harm,” an attempt to discourage the filing of complaints for violations of the Book of Discipline. This resolution is being challenged through a question of law, which will be ruled on by Bishop Jeremiah Park and reviewed by the Judicial Council.

3. The same New York Annual Conference also acted to form “A Study Committee for an Inclusive Conference.” In view of the deep divisions within The United Methodist Church over homosexuality, the committee would “study and evaluate alternative ways of being a Wesleyan Church, such as the creation of regional Central Conferences or of an autonomous Church or the formation of a new expression of the Methodist Church.” Options would be studied over the next several years and brought to the annual conference for action in 2015. A similar proposal has been introduced in the California-Nevada Annual Conference, but had not been acted on at press time.

4. The California-Pacific Annual Conference, meeting June 14–17, passed a resolution that “We renounce the statement that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and declare that it is itself incompatible with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.” The resolution affirms the sacred worth of all persons and “commit[s] to continuing to build inclusive Christian communities in our churches where LGBTQ lay people and clergy are loved and welcomed as they are.” Based on the conference’s renunciation of official United Methodist teaching as enacted by the General Conference, this resolution is being cha lenged through a question of law, which will be ruled on by Bishop Mary Ann Swenson and reviewed by the Judicial Council.