On April 30 General Conference voted on issues of homosexuality, even as the church continued to pursue opportunities for mission and ministry across the globe. It was an emotion-filled day, punctuated by a refrain of “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” Mike McCurry, of St. Paul’s UMC in Kensington, writes about it in an e-mail home to his pastor.
We had a difficult and emotionally draining day here at General Conference. For all the good work we have been doing to focus on the priority areas that our church has identified (leadership, church growth, poverty, health and diseases of poverty), sooner or later we knew we would face the issue of homosexuality.
Every General Conference since 1972 has wrestled with the issue and the result has remained largely unchanged. That topic dominated debate today and will likely be the thing (alas, maybe the only thing) that gets reported in the mainstream secular media about General Conference. And the headline will likely be: “Methodists Maintain Opposition to Homosexuality.”
Here’s what happened: the legislative committee responsible for this topic reported a petition to the entire General Conference that would have dropped the current language in our church law, The Book of Discipline, which says “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider (sic) this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Instead, the committee proposed new language which said: “Faithful, thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness… We therefore ask the Church, United Methodists and others, and the world, to refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices as the Spirit leads us to new insight.”
The General Conference rejected this new language by a vote of 501-417 (55%-45%) and went on to uphold the current “incompatible” language with some slight modifications. We reaffirmed that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth created in the image of God” and that “families and churches should not reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.” Late tonight, we also upheld (by a slightly larger margin) the prohibition on “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from serving as clergy or candidates for clergy in the UMC.
Those with good memory will recall this is almost exactly the same result – substance and vote – that occurred at the General Conference four years ago in Pittsburgh. But it was no less painful for all sides of the debate. Those who deeply believe that homosexuality is a sin and contrary to our Christian teaching feel they would lack integrity if they did not stand up and say so when defending church law. Those who believe that God is guiding us to a new understanding of Scripture feel equally compelled to speak the truth that our church is deeply divided on this issue.
This was the first time in seven days of deliberation here in Ft Worth that I felt we failed to measure up to John Wesley’s three rules for holy living: “Do Good, Do No Harm, Stay in Love With God.” We have done much good here. Our debate today was truly done in a spirit of “holy conferencing” and I felt the tone and tenor of the debate was far less polarized, angry, and close-minded than four years ago in Pittsburgh. But it is inevitable – on this issue that almost divides the church in half – that great harm is done when one side or the other is required to prevail in debate.
There were many tears and sad faces as the consequences of the vote sunk in. Many delegates and visitors stood in silent protest as the business of the General Conference concluded before a dinner break. A soft chorus of “Jesus Loves Me (Us), This I Know” echoed around the Hall as the formal business of the plenary session droned on. Ours is a merciful God and my guess is that God shed a tear or two for our brokenness, too.
But here’s one bright spot in the day: Delegates and friends from the Baltimore-Washington Conference met on the main stage/altar of the General Conference at lunchtime today with our brothers and sisters from the Zimbabwe conferences of the Methodist Church and reaffirmed our special relationship with that country and the church and people there.
We had heard an amazing report this morning about Africa University – a gem in the rolling hills of northeast Zimbabwe where students from 18 countries across sub-Saharan Africa attend classes at a modern, well-equipped institution of higher-learning that the United Methodist Church with the grace of God willed into existence nearly two decades ago. Africa University has managed to thrive and continue its wonderful work despite the political and economic meltdown in the country since the early 2000s.
The hope our brothers and sisters from Zimbabwe have for their country and the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe – amidst such awful hardships and deprivation – was wonderful tonic. God helps us through all our hardships and trials and is waiting for us there “on the other side” to renew God’s covenant with us anew. We will keep marching to Zion, weary though we are at the end of a tough, tough day.
Blessings to all my St Paulsters —