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By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

Fort Worth, Texas — The United Methodist Church held to its traditional rules on homosexuality Wednesday (April 30), refusing to support or celebrate same-sex unions and maintaining language that calls homosexual activity “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
While many Methodists gathered here acknowledged sharp disagreement within their church on sexuality and biblical interpretation, delegates voted down efforts that would reflect that division in church rules or social policies.
A measure to remove the “incompatible” phrase and replace it with a mandate to “refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices as the Spirit leads us to new insight” was defeated 517 to 416.
Nearly 1,000 delegates here at the quadrennial General Conference spent almost all day debating Methodist policies on homosexuality, continuing a sometimes contentious discussion the church has held for almost 40 years.
Many Methodists rose to speak in favor of a clear continuation of traditional teachings, especially for the purpose of evangelizing to a world that they said is beset by moral confusion.
“Friends, this is serious business,” said the Rev. H. Eddie Fox, director of evangelism for the World Methodist Council. “It is an urgent matter for our church. It matters what we believe and what we practice and we do not meet here in isolation.”
Indeed, several delegates warned that actions taken here directly affect Methodists in Africa and Asia, many of whom are conservative and whose churches are experiencing explosive growth. About 30 percent of the 11.5 million-member church now lives outside the U.S.
The resolution calling for the church to refrain from judgment until a wider consensus is reached offered more than an opportunity to recognize differences of opinion in the divided church, said Will Green, a lay delegate from New England.
“It also allows gay and lesbian people like myself to stay in the church in a safe way that doesn’t cause us to be sacrificed for the sake of church unity,” he said.
Earlier in the day, a solid majority — more than 65 percent — rejected an attempt to change the church’s constitution, the Book of Discipline, to recognize same-sex civil unions.
The ban “reflects the sentiment of most (church) members and the majority of citizens in the U.S. and many other countries,” said the committee that handled the resolution. “Sanctioning homosexual unions would give the church’s approval to homosexual behavior and relationships, which would be inconsistent” with church teaching.
Delegates also refused to commit to support civil unions in wider society. They did agree to open educational opportunities to all persons regardless of sexual orientation.
And, after an emotional debate, a slim majority of Methodists agreed to strengthen the church’s advocacy against sexism by “opposing all forms of violence or discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice or sexual orientation.”
The measure also commits the church’s General Board of Church and Society to develop resources and materials for local churches to fight homophobia.
Two clergy delegates from the Democratic Republic of the Congo forcefully spoke out against the anti-homophobia resolution.
Speaking in French with the aid of a translator, one pastor said that it’s “very sad that the Methodist Church continues to advocate for things that come from the devil. … It is time for us as church to get on our knees and proclaim that we have made a mistake.”
But Judy Stevens, a delegate from New York, said, “It’s time for us to stand together with people who, although their orientation may be different from ours, still need to be protected from violent actions that are brought upon them on the basis of who they are.”
And Denny Coon of Iowa said that it’s possible to oppose homosexuality while supporting the anti-homophobia resolution. “This petition helps open up the church and let folks know they have nothing to fear,” he said.
Frederick Brewington, chair of the convention’s “church and society” committee, which studied and amended the sexuality resolutions before they were debated by the full assembly, said, “We are not at a place where we agree.”
“We are at a time in history where we understand we are in many places,” he said. Later he called the decades-long debate “festering sores on the body of the church.”
Methodists’ disagreements over homosexuality mirror regional and generational divisions in the U.S. Slightly more than half of Methodist clergy and laity “agree somewhat” with their church’s refusal to condone homosexual acts, according to a “state of the church” report issued last year.
But a significant minority — 30 percent of clergy, and 28 percent of laity — “disagree strongly” with the church’s position on homosexuality. As in the U.S., younger Methodists and those that live in the West and Northeast tend to be more tolerant of homosexuality.
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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