A crowd of more than 200 marched around the complex in silent prayer as the Rt. Rev. George Carey, spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, greeted the church and an array of ecumenical leaders to say there is more than enough room for "theological wrestling together."
Methodists are meeting here this week for their quadrennial General Conference, which will set policy and doctrine for the nation's second-largest Protestant body. Despite the overtures to unity, the church is engaged in an emotional fight over the role of gays and lesbians 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 gay issue has forced the church into two distinct camps. Most church observers, 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 are here to raise, to escalate, and to make aware that God's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered children will no longer sit in the balcony and grieve."
White said his group blocked the exits to the convention center so church delegates would have "no exit without justice."
"You've been in there for 32 years, and don't come out until you get it right," White said, referring to the church's discussions on homosexuality for three decades.
The group said it was protesting primarily because it was denied seats on the convention floor during Carey's speech. Talks between Soulforce and church officials to allow some sort of access fell apart earlier this week. Soulforce activists had wanted to speak whenever gay legislation came up, as well as holding a prayer vigil during Carey's speech.
The United Methodist Church has long wrestled with how to incorporate homosexuals into church life. The church has previously said the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching," and it forbids the ordination of gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex union ceremonies.
The church committee handling the gay legislation has signaled that they favor retaining the church's current language on homosexuality. A vote by all 992 delegates on various proposals on the volatile issue is expected later this week, most likely Thursday, but little is expected to change.
Despite fears by some delegates, the choreographed protest was largely peaceful and was over before Carey even finished speaking. Protesters gathered in small circles of prayer while anti-gay hecklers waved 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, was arrested. Also speaking were the Rev. Jimmy Creech, a Nebraska pastor who 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 embrace everyone with love and compassion, and the tradition that I come from is that," said King, who added that her father would be standing with the protesters if he were still alive.
The Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president and publisher of the Good News 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 to affirm what the church has affirmed for 2,000 years, what...the ecumenical community of Christendom has affirmed, that it somehow makes us hatemongers," Heidinger said.
In the address by Carey, the archbishop said the Anglican Church shared the burden of discussing the issue of homosexuality. In 1998, the Anglican Church gathered in England and staked out a position on homosexuality similar to the Methodists, but the Episcopal Church in the U.S. has been pushing the limits on that rule and allowed individual dioceses to decide how to handle the issue.
United Methodists and the Anglican Church share common roots in the 18th century, when an Anglican priest, John Wesley, called for renewal within the church, and his followers formed the Methodist movement.
"The unity that we seek is not simply for the sake of unity but in the service of the gospel," Carey said. "We are not in the business of ecclesiastical `joinery' for its own sake. Rather, we are in the business of building a church which...is graceful, generous, merciful, and conforms ever more deeply to the person of Jesus Christ."