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The Dallas Morning News – April 22, 2008

DALLAS – For more than 30 years, the United Methodist Church has been trying to show that a denomination divided against itself on homosexuality can still stand.
The latest test begins Wednesday in Fort Worth.
Nearly 1,000 lay and clergy delegates – mainly from the United States, but with a strong African contingent – will gather at the Convention Center for a General Conference, a term that covers both the denomination’s top legislative body and the body’s quadrennial meeting.
This epic exercise in church democracy lasts nine days, during which about 1,600 proposed resolutions and changes to church law and policy – everything from revising the denomination’s hymnal to boycotting companies with questionable labor practices – will at least get looked at by a committee.
And there will almost certainly be another round of heated debate and contentious votes over whether the UMC should change its official position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and withdraw its ban on non-celibate gay pastors.
Recent General Conferences have seen protests by gay-rights supporters. Eight years ago in Cleveland, some 200 demonstrators, including two bishops, were arrested for disrupting proceedings.
Still, most experts believe the big tent of the UMC will hold, however the winds blow in Fort Worth. Some even say the denomination has turned a corner toward unity.
“I’ve never been more hopeful than I am right now about the church,” said Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher of Illinois, who is among leaders arguing that the UMC should focus on such goals as training more church leaders and fighting disease globally.
Other denominations certainly offer cautionary tales.
Since confirming an openly gay bishop, the Episcopal Church has lost congregations and even a California diocese, with the Fort Worth diocese preparing to go.
UMC partisans seem as entrenched as those in other denominations, but disinclined to bolt.
“I have not heard any conversations at all from anybody preparing for that,” said the Rev. Eric Folkerth of Dallas’ Northaven United Methodist Church, where support is strong for full inclusion of gay people in the UMC, including as ministers.
The stick-it-out sentiment is currently voiced as well by James Heidinger, publisher of Good News, a magazine popular among those who favor keeping the church’s position that homosexuality is against Christian teaching.
“We’ve been watching the Episcopal Church fall apart, and no one wants to see that kind of thing happen in the United Methodist Church,” Heidinger said.
The UMC formed 40 years ago at a General Conference in Dallas, with the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. But its roots go back to John Wesley, whose 18th century Church of England renewal movement stressed a methodical approach to Scripture and Christian living.
Methodism spread to the American colonies, leading to the creation of its own church in the early years of the United States.
Through many twists and turns – including a north-south split over slavery – Methodism has been a major part of the country’s religious landscape. And the UMC, with nearly 8 million members in this country and 160,000 in North Texas, is not only the second-largest U.S. Protestant group (after Southern Baptists) but arguably its most representative.
“Methodism really does represent the broad middle,” said William Lawrence, dean of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. “We have the same problems in the UMC that the U.S. social and cultural fabric have.”
The UMC has taken many liberal social and political positions, and been a leader in ordaining women ministers. No denominational language prohibits gay members. Many churches advertise themselves as “inclusive” or “welcoming and affirming” to gay people, and most are at least quietly accepting.
But the UMC has not followed the Episcopal Church and United Church of Christ in allowing non-celibate gay clergy, and its 1972 language calling homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching has survived one General Conference challenge after another.
Conservatives say that’s only right, since the Bible condemns homosexuality. They argue that the UMC and other mainline denominations have steadily lost members by focusing too much on social concerns and not enough on the Bible and evangelism.
Supporters of gay rights counter that Jesus doesn’t speak about homosexuality in the Bible, that Bible verses on the subject are few and open to interpretation, and that Christianity requires loving acceptance of people in the sexual orientation God gave them.
Going into this General Conference, conservatives have the upper hand. That’s partly because the delegation from Africa – where the UMC is growing – is larger than ever and staunchly opposed to changes on homosexuality.
Some in the UMC, including certain bishops, are critical of the General Conference tradition because it’s expensive – projected cost this time is $6.6 million – and shines a hot light on controversies.
Others say the General Conference may actually help keep the UMC intact, because it gives a forum for dissent while enforcing, through its vast number of delegates from all over the church, the broader will of the membership.
And it was at General Conference four years ago in Pittsburgh, amid talk of amicably splitting the denomination because of deep differences over homosexuality and other issues, that delegates took up a unity resolution.
They held hands and sang “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” then voted 869-41 to stick together.
(c) 2008, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.

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