By Jeff Walton
The public policy arm of the United Methodist Church has once again voted to introduce legislation to the 2012 General Conference that would remove disapproval of homosexual practices and effectively liberalize the church’s teachings on sex.
In a lopsided vote, directors of the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) adopted a resolution at the agency’s spring meeting February 9-13 that would swap the current text of the church’s “Social Principles” in the denomination’s Book of Discipline with neutral language that was termed more conciliatory. Of the 63-member board, only two directors opposed the resolution, while one abstained. An undetermined number were not present for the vote. The two “no” votes were Mark Parris from North Alabama Conference and Steve Furr of the Alabama-West Florida Conference.
GBCS has a long-time tradition of asking General Conference to liberalize the church’s sexual teachings. Every General Conference has rejected these appeals.
The Book of Discipline declares that “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” which is in the “Social Principles,” and instructs elsewhere in the Discipline that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” The Board’s resolution only addressed the “Social Principles” language.
In a change from how other proposed resolutions were introduced at the meeting, GBCS Human Welfare Committee Chair Bishop Jane Middleton of Central Pennsylvania asked directors to first pair off into groups of two. The directors were asked to, in under a minute, share with the other how they had arrived at their current position on the human sexuality language. After each director had shared with the other, they were then to explain what they had learned from the other. Following this discussion session, the plenary session editing of the resolution resumed.
Several directors were not present for the meeting held at a United Methodist retreat center outside of Orlando, Florida, but the overwhelming margin of the vote would seem to signal GBCS’s determination to see the language changed.
The move paves the way for human sexuality disputes to once again be at the forefront of the United Methodist General Conference when it meets in 2012. As the denomination’s highest rulemaking body, only the General Conference can vote to change language in the Discipline.
The board’s vote in favor of removing the “incompatible” language, which dates to 1972, coincided with a statement issued in February by a group of retired United Methodist bishops in which they called upon The United Methodist Church to remove the ordination standards regarding homosexual practice.
The retired bishops’ statement quickly drew rebuke from a coalition of traditionalist groups who aim to uphold church teaching on the matter.
“The path urged by the retired bishops, if adopted, will leave The United Methodist Church barely distinguishable from the culture, particularly in the Christian West,” read a statement by the Renewal and Reform Coalition. “All this would be done for the sake of expediency and convenience, a desire for ‘relevance,’ and a misapplied sense of social justice. In reality, the retired bishops’ position is in a distinct minority across the Church universal and has only resulted in dissension, schism, and the weakening of the Church where it has been adopted.”
Some bishops expressed disappointment with the retired bishops’ public opposition to the Book of Discipline’s current rule.
“I think that it’s unfortunate that this group of bishops has stepped outside of the covenant relationship and find this the only way in which to voice their opinion about the issue of homosexuality,” Oklahoma Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr., said in an interview with United Methodist News Service.
He said the statement steps outside the accepted process for changing church policy. Any person, regardless of whether that individual is clergy or a layperson, can petition General Conference to ask for a change.
“This circumvents our way of handling difficult issues,” Hayes said. “I am very disappointed the bishops chose this way to make their opinions known.”
Two bishops from Africa also spoke out against the statement.
“Africa should not be pushed on this issue,” said Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa of Zimbabwe. “The position of The United Methodist Church right now is the position that is in sync with the context of the African church right now.”
Bishop John Innis of Liberia agreed. “We are all created by God,” he said. “A person who practices homosexuality can be my friend, but I cannot condone that behavior.”
In 2008, delegates to the General Conference voted 517 to 416 to retain the church’s official stance holding homosexual practice as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The margins on the church’s prohibition against active homosexual clergy and same-sex unions were larger, sometimes surpassing 70 percent.
The presence of 192 African delegates, who were outspoken in their defense of the church’s current position on homosexuality, was credited by traditionalists as providing the votes necessary to prevent deleting the “incompatible” clause. The number of African delegates will increase to nearly 300 at the 2012 General Conference. Although over 4 million United Methodists now live in Africa, over one-third of the denomination, only 3 Africans serve on GBCS’s 63-member board.
The 2008 General Conference also voted, by larger margins, to “support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” to affirm that “sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage,” and to maintain the current prohibitions of same-sex union services and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
Jeff Walton is Communications Manager for the Institute on Religion & Democracy.