A crowd of more than 200 marched around the complex in silent prayeras the Rt. Rev. George Carey, spiritual leader of the worldwide AnglicanCommunion, greeted the church and an array of ecumenical leaders to saythere is more than enough room for "theological wrestling together."
Methodists are meeting here this week for their quadrennial GeneralConference, which will set policy and doctrine for the nation'ssecond-largest Protestant body. Despite the overtures to unity, thechurch is engaged in an emotional fight over the role of gays andlesbians in church life.
With 8.4 million members, the denomination has become ground zero for the debate on homosexuality in American church life. Those urging greater acceptance say if the church doesn't budge, they might lead a progressive exodus. Conservatives and evangelicals say that is fine with them, but they might walk, too, if the church moves more liberal.
Talk of an inevitable schism has been simmering for years as the gayissue has forced the church into two distinct camps. Most churchobservers, however, doubt this convention will literally split the church.
The struggle over issues related to homosexuality is what brought the protesters to the Convention Center. Led by Soulforce, an ecumenical gay rights group, nearly 200 people were led off by police to face charges of aggravated disorderly conduct and fines of about $175. The Rev. Mel White, a former ghostwriter for the Rev. Jerry Falwell and leader of Soulforce, said he was protesting the church's policies out of love.
"We are not here to disrupt or cause trouble," White said. "We arehere to raise, to escalate, and to make aware that God's lesbian, gay,bisexual, and transgendered children will no longer sit in the balconyand grieve."
White said his group blocked the exits to the convention center sochurch delegates would have "no exit without justice."
"You've been in there for 32 years, and don't come out until you getit right," White said, referring to the church's discussions onhomosexuality for three decades.
The group said it was protesting primarily because it was denied seats onthe convention floor during Carey's speech. Talks between Soulforce andchurch officials to allow some sort of access fell apart earlier thisweek. Soulforce activists had wanted to speak whenever gay legislationcame up, as well as holding a prayer vigil during Carey's speech.
The United Methodist Church has long wrestled with how toincorporate homosexuals into church life. The church has previously saidthe practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching,"and it forbids the ordination of gay clergy and the blessing of same-sexunion ceremonies.
The church committee handling the gay legislation has signaled thatthey favor retaining the church's current language on homosexuality. Avote by all 992 delegates on various proposals on the volatile issue isexpected later this week, most likely Thursday, but little is expected to change.
Despite fears by some delegates, the choreographed protest waslargely peaceful and was over before Carey even finished speaking.Protesters gathered in small circles of prayer while anti-gay hecklerswaved signs that said, "Friends Don't Let Friends Be Homosexuals" and"God Hates Fags."
The rally drew outspoken advocates for gay rights within the church.Bishop Joseph Sprague of Chicago, an outspoken gay rights supporter, wasarrested. Also speaking were the Rev. Jimmy Creech, a Nebraska pastorwho was defrocked for performing a same-sex union ceremony, and the Rev.Gregory Dell, who was suspended on similar charges.
"I feel it is so important that the church must include and embraceeveryone with love and compassion, and the tradition that I come from isthat," said King, who added that her father would be standing with theprotesters if he were still alive.
The Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president and publisher of the GoodNews evangelical movement, called White's protests "counterproductive." Heidinger, who urges full prosecution of clergy who disobey the church's policy, said he does not expect the church to take any dramatic turns.
"I think it's unfortunate that those of us who have the audacity toaffirm what the church has affirmed for 2,000 years, what...theecumenical community of Christendom has affirmed, that it somehow makesus hatemongers," Heidinger said.