It was a long 10 days for the 992 voting delegates and hundreds of others who descended on Cleveland for the quadrennial policy-making session of the nation's second-largest Protestant body. From its opening session marked by great pomp and circumstance on May 2, the Cleveland meeting was a roller coaster ride for the spiritual heirs of John Wesley.
The meeting largely revolved around the issue of homosexuality, as pro-gay activists tried unsucessfully to change the church's ban on gay ordination and same-sex union ceremonies. More than 200 people--including two bishops--were arrested in different protests, and the meeting was brought to its knees over the contentious and volatile issue.
But now that the church decided not to change its teaching and rules on gays, the questions left are how to heal the deep wounds ripped open by the General Conference, how to address the concerns of at least a third of the church and how to keep the United Methodist Church united as one body?
The church has a proud tradition of opening General Conferences by singing the old Wesley hymn "Are We Yet Alive." When the church meets again in 2004, they might very well be singing, "Are We Yet Together?" "This kind of situation for a long period of time will be intolerable for a lot of people," said the Rev. Bruce Robbins, general secretary of the church's General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.
"It's obvious we're not talking about a united church in this United Methodist body," he said.
The votes to retain bans on gay ordination, same-sex union ceremonies and keep a statement declaring homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching" all passed by roughly two-to-one margins. That means the bottom line for the church is that at least a third of the church is unhappy with the positions 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 a move toward the middle among the delegates.
But because a new delegate formula was approved that will give more votes 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 pastor who 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 191 arrests 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 be arrested, maintain a financial and talent boycott of the church and picket Methodist congregations that do not accept gays and lesbians.
Conservatives, meanwhile, leave the Cleveland convention with a sense of affirmation. They say the gay votes signal that the church is unwilling to move toward the left, and that their hold on the vast middle will continue into 2004 and beyond.
This year's meeting, while dominated by the gay issue, also saw a historic "mea culpa" on the part of the church for its long history of institutional racism that spurred the birth of three black splinter denominations. Delegates donned sackcloth and ashes as they asked for repentance; representatives of the black churches cautiously accepted.
On the heels of that apology, the church will be wrestling with how to mend racial divisions. On Friday, delegates considered a constitutional amendment that essentially said the church has failed in the 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 presence with commercials similar to those produced by the Mormons. Some in the church, at least, now wonder what sort of united message a divided church will be sending.
The church's bishops, who have been watching the conference without the right to vote, have expressed a growing unease with the divisions that have split the church. More than anything, they say, the church is really of one mind on most things, and divided on only a few.
The way the denomination handles its problems may have ramifications well beyond the walls of the church, one bishop said.
"If we don't stay together and demonstrate that we have a different way of dealing with controversy, we may contribute to the fragmentation and 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."