By Linda Bloom
Ten years ago, the Rev. Greg Dell was put on trial by the United Methodist Church for performing a same-sex union ceremony. Since then, a few states have legalized gay marriage and some mainline Protestant denominations, including the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, now accept non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy.
The United Methodist Church, however, has remained firm in upholding its traditional stance that homosexual practice “is incompatible with Christian teaching.” In a November 2, 2009, decision, the Judicial Council, the church’s highest court, struck down a resolution from the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference that said the church is divided on the issue.
“The effect of the Baltimore-Washington resolution is to negate the church’s clearly stated position,” the council wrote.
In looking to the future, the question is whether the United Methodist Church is separating itself from other, more liberal Protestant churches on this issue, or whether the momentum toward gay rights will lead to an eventual shift in church policy.
Dell, for one, is not expecting a change any time soon. “If we’re not the last holdouts, we’re going to be very close to that,” said Dell, who was convicted of the offense but returned to his position as pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago after a year’s suspension. He retired early two years ago because of Parkinson’s disease.
A policy since 1972. The denomination’s top legislative body, the General Conference, first took a stand on the incompatibility of Christianity and homosexual practice in 1972. Since then, Dell said, “the General Conference has moved steadily to more and more explicitly conservative positions.”
The voiding of the Baltimore-Washington sexuality statement is the latest example of how the denomination continues to uphold its official position. Earlier in 2009, the church’s top court overturned resolutions from two California conferences supporting clergy who perform same-gender marriages.
Many rejoice that the church is not abandoning its stance.
“I believe that the position of our church is faithful to Christian teaching,” said the Rev. Eddie Fox, head of world evangelism for the World Methodist Council. “We are called to faithfulness to the covenant which is expressed in the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.”
But Dell and other advocates for change see these actions as tragic. A church with “a wonderful history of being involved in and advocating for social justice movements” is now “ignoring the pain it causes” to a segment of society, he said.
Strong advocates. A survey taken in 2008 among senior clergy in seven mainline denominations showed United Methodists were among the strongest advocates of traditional church policies on marriage and ordination, ranking below only their colleagues from American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.
The 2008 Mainline Protestant Clergy Voices Survey, conducted by Washington-based Public Religion Research, found that two-thirds of United Church of Christ clergy support same-sex marriage, but only one in four United Methodist respondents favored the practice.
Seventy-two percent of Episcopal clergy back the ordination of gays and lesbians, compared to 32 percent of United Methodist pastors. Eighty percent of Evangelical Lutheran clergy support gays and lesbians as lay leaders, compared to 51 percent of United Methodist leaders.
The Rev. Troy Plummer, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a movement supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender United Methodists, believes church members are simply lagging a bit behind their Protestant counterparts.
“The United Methodist Church in the United States clearly follows the trajectory towards inclusiveness mirrored by our North American sister denominations—the UCC, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches,” Plummer said. “Our timing may differ, but God’s dance with us will be the same.”
Staying true. The Lutheran Church in Sweden is now allowing same-sex marriages in its churches, noted United Methodist Bishop Christian Alsted, who represents the church’s Nordic and Baltic Area. Lutherans in Norway may do the same.
But Alsted believes United Methodists must stay true to themselves. “I don’t think we should try to define ourselves in terms of other denominations,” he explained. “I think we should try to discern what we think is right for us as a church as we understand the biblical message.”
He would like to see less debate on homosexuality in the future. “It seems to me we are directing far too much energy and resources into that question, and it is putting our focus in the wrong place,” Alsted said. “We should focus on what we need to be about as a church.”
Fox argues that the United Methodist Church, which represents about one-third of world Methodists, “is not out of step” on the homosexuality issue.
“You’ve got to look at the world church,” he said. “What we hold is very much in keeping with the expression of Christian faith around the world.”
Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.