CLEVELAND, May 11 (RNS)--In a major setback for pro-gay activists, the UnitedMethodist Church voted decisively on Thursday to retainpolicies prohibiting homosexuals from ordination, banning same-sex unionceremonies, and describing homosexuality as "incompatible with Christianteaching."

The votes all carried by 2-to-1 ratios, and the results wereexpected. The votes were overshadowed by an emotional protest thatbrought the denomination's top decision-making body to a standstill andresulted in arrests of at least 27 people, including two church bishops.

During two emotionally wrenching sessions, more than 200 activistsdisrupted the meeting by storming the convention floor and circling theauditorium to protest the votes. After taking a break and entering intoprayer, delegates voted to allow the protesters to remain on theconvention floor throughout the end of debate.

But when delegates reconvened after lunch and voted to prohibitsame-sex unions, more than two dozen protesters blocked the stage of theauditorium and vowed not to leave unless they were arrested. SeveralCleveland police officers led them offstage without handcuffs.

Lt. Sharon MacKay of the Cleveland Police Department said thearrestees face charges of disrupting a lawful meeting--a misdemeanor--with a maximum punishment of $250 and/or 30 days in jail, plus courtcosts. MacKay said the arrestees could be in jail over the weekendbefore a court hearing on Monday. Bishop Joseph Sprague of Chicago, who was also arrested in an earlierdemonstration Wednesday, and Bishop Susan Morrison of Albany, N.Y., werearrested with the protesters. Also arrested was the Rev. Gregory Dell, aUnited Methodist pastor who was suspended from ministry for performing asame-sex union ceremony.

Randy Miller, a gay California layman, spoke for the protest groupand said the church had broken its covenant with homosexuals.

"Neither height nor depth nor legislation of this church willdeprive us of the love of Jesus Christ," Miller said.

The votes and the demonstration brought many delegates to tears.

"The United Methodist Church, while we say we accept all people, westill put qualifications...and close the doors to some people," said atearful Rebecca Carver, an Iowa pastor and delegate. "That to me ispainful, and I pray that will change."

At the height of the morning demonstration, a woman threatened tojump from the arena's balcony but was held back by others. "I am gay, Ihave been gay all my life, and I love God," the woman said beforeattempting to jump.

The United Methodist Church--the nation's second-largestProtestant body with 8.4 million members in the United States and another 1.4 million overseas--is meeting here this weekfor its quadrennial General Conference to set policy and doctrine. Themeeting is set to wrap up on Friday.

The church has become ground zero in the battle for more inclusionof gays in church life since the General Conference last met in 1996.Because of a series of seemingly contradictory rulings on same-sex unionceremonies, pro-gay activists had hoped this meeting would bring achange in policy.

The issue brought this year's meeting to its knees as 191 peoplewere arrested on Wednesday after they blocked the driveway tothe convention center in protest of anti-gay policies.

One of the church's most divisive statements calls the practice ofhomosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching" and has served tomold the church's doctrine on such related issues as ordination andsame-sex unions. Delegates voted 628-337 to retain the statement.

The Rev. Traci West, a church pastor from New York, urged delegatesto remove the statement and stop using Scripture to exclude homosexualsas it once was used to justify slavery or the subjugation of women.

"Let us seize this opportunity to step into the love of God," Westsaid. "Is there not already enough hate, enough war, enough prejudice,enough use of the Bible to discriminate on the basis of sexualorientation? Let us worry about the ones Jesus calls us to care about--the oppressed."

On the issue of prohibiting the ordination of "self-avowedpracticing homosexuals," delegates voted 640-317 to uphold the ban.

After delegates had voted to continue the "incompatibility" language,many said lifting the ordination ban would be inconsistent. "We are a people...who want the church to be a place where all arewelcome and where grace abounds," said a delegate, the Rev. MarkFenstermacher of Elkhart, Ind. "But while we are a people of grace, weare also a people of [biblical] truth."

Delegates voted 646-294 to keep the ban on same-sex unions and alsodefeated a motion that would have changed the wording of the prohibitionfrom "shall not" to "should not."

The protesters had informed bishops they would storm the floor ifthe homosexuality language was upheld, but the church was unprepared forthe demonstration that resulted in their arrest.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus