It was a long 10 days for the 992 voting delegates and hundredsof others who descended on Cleveland for the quadrennial policy-makingsession of the nation's second-largest Protestant body. From its opening session marked by great pomp and circumstance on May 2, the Cleveland meetingwas a roller coaster ride for the spiritual heirs of John Wesley.
The meeting largely revolved around the issue of homosexuality, aspro-gay activists tried unsucessfully to change the church's ban on gayordination and same-sex union ceremonies. More than 200 people--including two bishops--were arrested in different protests, and themeeting was brought to its knees over the contentious and volatileissue.
But now that the church decided not to change its teaching andrules on gays, the questions left are how to heal the deep wounds rippedopen by the General Conference, how to address the concerns of at least a thirdof the church and how to keep the United Methodist Church united as one body?
The church has a proud tradition of opening General Conferences bysinging the old Wesley hymn "Are We Yet Alive." When the church meetsagain in 2004, they might very well be singing, "Are We Yet Together?" "This kind of situation for a long period of time will beintolerable for a lot of people," said the Rev. Bruce Robbins, generalsecretary of the church's General Commission on Christian Unity andInterreligious Concerns.
"It's obvious we're not talking about a united church in this UnitedMethodist body," he said.
The votes to retain bans on gay ordination, same-sex union ceremonies and keepa statement declaring homosexuality "incompatible with Christianteaching" all passed by roughly two-to-one margins. That means the bottom line forthe church is that at least a third of the church is unhappy with thepositions on homosexuality.
Pro-gay factions within the church were left stunned by the votes,although they expected little to change. What they were hoping for was amove toward the middle among the delegates.
But because a new delegate formula was approved that will give morevotes to the more conservative southern states and non-U.S. delegates,that is now even more likely not to change.
"Of course it's a defeat, and extraordinarily painful in the moment,but not in the long run," said the Rev. Jimmy Creech, a Nebraska pastorwho was defrocked in 1998 for performing a same-sex union ceremony."This General Conference does not determine the future."
Soulforce, the gay rights group that led a protest resulting in 191arrests and led by the Rev. Mel White--who is not a United Methodist--has already said it will bring 1,000 people to the 2004 meeting to bearrested, maintain a financial and talent boycott of the church andpicket Methodist congregations that do not accept gays and lesbians.
Conservatives, meanwhile, leave the Cleveland convention with asense of affirmation. They say the gay votes signal that the church isunwilling to move toward the left, and that their hold on the vastmiddle will continue into 2004 and beyond.
This year's meeting, while dominated by the gay issue, also saw ahistoric "mea culpa" on the part of the church for its long history ofinstitutional racism that spurred the birth of three black splinterdenominations. Delegates donned sackcloth and ashes as they asked forrepentance; representatives of the black churches cautiously accepted.
On the heels of that apology, the church will be wrestling with howto mend racial divisions. On Friday, delegates considered aconstitutional amendment that essentially said the church has failed inthe past, and will try to do better, on race relations.
The church will also be taking to the airwaves with a glitzy, $20-million television ad campaign that hopes to raise the church's presencewith commercials similar to those produced by the Mormons. Some in thechurch, at least, now wonder what sort of united message a dividedchurch will be sending.
The church's bishops, who have been watching the conference withoutthe right to vote, have expressed a growing unease with the divisionsthat have split the church. More than anything, they say, the church isreally of one mind on most things, and divided on only a few.
The way the denomination handles its problems may have ramifications wellbeyond the walls of the church, one bishop said.
"If we don't stay together and demonstrate that we have a differentway of dealing with controversy, we may contribute to the fragmentationand alienation of society," said Bishop Kenneth Carder of Nashville."But if we stay together, respect each other and address these issues,we may be a way of showing how to unite a broken society."