A Church Divided
The issue of homosexuality is having a profound and diversifying affect on the United Methodist Church. It is an issue that was first introduced to the Church at the General Conference in 1972 and has gained momentum ever since. In 1996 fifteen active and retired bishops presented a statement to the secular press in which they affirmed the right of homosexual Methodists to participate in the life of the Church although stating that they would abide by the Church discipline on the matter. In that same year Rev. Jimmy Creech of the Nebraska Conference openly conducted a marriage between two women and was acquitted at a church trial in 1997. However, reaction from clergy and laity forced his removal from all pastoral assignments within the church. These two happenings have created a storm of controversy and may eventually lead to a division of the denomination into new conservative and liberal entities and the end to United Methodism as we know it.
The Church position on homosexuality is presented in The Book of Discipline:
para. 71F"Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider the practice incompatible with Church teaching, we affirm that God's grace is available to all."
para. 402.2"self avowed, practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve the United Methodist Church."
para. 906.12"no church wide money may be given to any gay caucus group or be used to practice the acceptance of homosexuality."
At the present time, 16 of the 66 United Methodist conferences have voted at Annual Conference to support changes to The Book of Discipline that would allow homosexuals into the life of the Church and partake of the sacred ceremonies of marriage and ordination. They describe themselves as "reconciling conferences". Most reconciling conferences are located in the northern and western sections of the country.
The Council of Bishops struggles to maintain Church "unity with diversity" as this divisive issue tears at its foundations. They try to assure the majority of church members of their dedication to the laws of the United Methodist Church as presented in The Book of Discipline but some are concerned about their dedication to enforce it.
The reconciling movement believes that homosexuality is an "alternate lifestyle" to that of heterosexual couples and claim it is genetically induced and that sexual behavior associated with this life style is normal and natural. They want the Church to recognize the normalcy of their lifestyle and allow practicing homosexuals to participate in the sacred ceremonies of the church as other minorities do. Studies on human sexuality have so far failed to conclusively support the position that it is biological in nature. They contend that specific biblical passages against it were misinterpreted or are unclear.
The Bible presents homosexuality as being sexually immoral and a sin. Jesus does not address it but it is deplored in the Old Testament and by Paul in the New Testament. It is treated as a deviant behavior to the way God intended man to be; one man one woman. Most Christians believe it is an addiction similar to pornography and can be cured. The overwhelming majority of followers of Jesus represented by Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican and other protestant communions support the Scriptures on this issue.
The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church states: "Our standards affirm the Bible as the source of all that is necessary and sufficient unto salvation and is received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. While we acknowledge the primacy of scripture in theological reflection, our attempts to grasp its meaning always involves tradition, experience and reason."
While reason accepts biblical misinterpretation on the issues of race and gender, evangelical and conservative Christians believe the Scriptures are clear on the issue of homosexuality and are to be accepted without question as the word of God. Its prohibitions are to be followed as part of God's plan for us and to show us how we are to live our lives and be sanctified on earth. Opening the door to additional claims of misinterpretation would seriously undermine the credibility of the Scriptures and the teachings of morality they provide to us.
The reconciling movement is organized to pursue its agenda as The Reconciling Congregation Program (RCP). The RCP consists of a Board of Directors, staff, and a mission statement that has the stated purpose "of encouraging and equipping individuals, congregations, campus ministries, and church bodies to be ‘instruments of justice’ within the United Methodist Church both in policy and practice. In this endeavor, the program provides a supportive network, educational and worship resources, and strategies that enable and empower individuals and church organizations for Christian ministries with lesbian, gay and bisexual and other persons."http://www.rcp.org
The RCP claims to encompass 13,800 reconciling Methodists, 151 reconciling congregations, and 24 campus ministries in addition to the 6 conferences previously mentioned. The Church is under assault to accept homosexuals as full participants in its life and workings. As long as the United Methodist Church continues to accept continued debate on the subject, it will not go away and eventually force a division of the denomination.
Although we welcome the gay and lesbian person to worship in our churches in order to assure that God's grace is available to all, we must be faithful to scripture and continue to with hold those sacred ceremonies such as marriage and ordination that would indicate church endorsement of sin. We are all sinners and scripture requires acknowledgement and penitence of our sins.