Evanglical Prespective of General Conference 2000
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Homosexuality and General Conference
by Robert L. Kuyper
As the 2000 General Conference of the United Methodist Church is now history, it is clear that, while not the only topic of discussion and debate, homosexuality was the major issue before General Conference. After hours of discussion, debate, amendments, minority reports, sixties style demonstrations and arrests, two thirds of the delegates supported our traditional stands, a result five percentage points greater than the vote in 1996.
Two thirds of the delegates supported our traditional stands, a result five percentage points greater than the vote in 1996. The 1996 General Conference in Denver had a strong pro-gay presence which was absent in Cleveland. The Denver 15 Bishops, masses of Affirmation supporters as well as Bishops who openly promoted a change in stands as they spoke to the conference were missing from the Cleveland conference. The one Bishop who mentioned homosexuality, Bishop Kulah from Liberia, spoke strongly for the retention of our traditional stands in a global church.
Faith and Order Committee
The debate began in the Faith and Order Committee to whom was assigned most of the measures dealing with our basic stands, homosexual unions and the ordination of practicing homosexual clergy. On Saturday, May 6, they began four and a half hours of sharing, with any delegate able to speak for as long as they wished. I counted 19 speeches from a conservative position and 18 from a liberal position. Two were mixed and hard to classify. We heard delegates from Zimbabwe, Liberia, the Congo, Norway, the Philippines, the Caribbean and Mexico, all strongly urging that we keep our present stands. This committee was extremely popular with observers, lines forming as much as three hours before announced meeting times.
After this, the committee moved to debate. The committee approved keeping all measures in our Discipline by about a two thirds vote, about the same vote as the vote for the Chairperson of the committee. After all this discussion, no one's mind was changed. However, there was nearly unanimous agreement to add a statement to The Discipline, urging families not to "reject or condemn" lesbian or gay family members or friends.
Conservatives in general appealed to Scripture and the need for clear moral standards in our society which many felt was losing its moral bearings. June Goldman from Iowa gave a beautiful witness about a man whom she and her husband had helped to leave homosexuality behind. She told of the day after a long struggle when he wrote, quoting Martin Luther King, "I'm free at last. Thank God almighty. I'm free at last." With that the chair gave an enthusiastic, "Amen!" to his eventual embarrassment, for he felt he had compromised his neutrality. He offered to step down. A liberal delegate, Frank Dorsey of Kansas, asked him to stay on, upon which the committee members delivered a standing ovation. The chair, Robert Hayes of Texas, did a great job of being fair to all throughout the long hours the committee met.
A District Superintendent from the Philippines, Toribio Cajiuat, spoke of the extreme poverty in his country where ten percent of the people control ninety percent of the wealth. He had been jailed and tortured by a right wing government there. He said homosexuality is an issue of the rich and is of little consequence to those who are starving. But he did say that he would be hung if he went home with a change in stands. Mel Bowdan, a delegate from Kentucky, said he had traveled in Africa, and went on to say that African United Methodists would be in physical danger if they belonged to a church which approved of something so foreign to their culture. One African delegate said they had a greater problem with polygamy. When you get opposed from both sides, you must be doing something right!
Liberals generally focused their remarks on love and personal experience. Many said they knew family or friends who were gay or lesbian people. Many knew someone who had been in what they said was a committed relationship for a period of time. However, one delegate, Gerald Thurman from North Georgia, challenged this emphasis on personal experience, exclaiming that they were raising the "Golden Calf of personal experience." If we do this, he said, we run the risk of "institutional enabling" if we remain silent to the witness of Scripture.
One delegate, Bob Ward of Iowa, said he heard few examples of transformation. Obviously we need to do better in getting out the stories of those who have been healed. Surveys show that six to eight percent of the population once participated in homosexual behavior at some time in their lives. Many delegates probably had stories to share, but in the climate created by demonstrations and hostile political maneuvering, they were silenced.
On Wednesday morning, May 10, the debate moved outside the convention center as both Fred Phelps of "Godhatesfags" and Mel White of Soulforce showed up to voice their disagreement with the United Methodist Church.
Fred Phelps, who comes from Kansas to picket gay events around the country, featured a sign saying "Methodist Fag Church" with a backwards cross and flame insignia. Phelps, of course, believes his interpretation of the Bible is the only correct one, and he proclaims that all homosexual persons are hated by God as persons and will burn in hell. They consider us a "fag church" because we believe homosexual persons to be of sacred worth and admit gay and lesbian persons into membership. I heard many hateful epithets from this group and only one brief call for repentance. Much of what they said, I cannot repeat here. I had heard of them before in news reports, but I was astounded and sickened at the intensity of their antagonistic language and malevolent signs.
UM Decision 2000, the conservative coalition, decided to display signs saying, "Go home Fred, love says no to hate," making a witness that United Methodists rejected his extreme views. That only brought more invective from the Phelps group. They are certainly the most evil group I have encountered.
Meanwhile Soulforce began their rally. Their leader is Mel White, a former ghost writer for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who announced his homosexuality, left his wife and now lives with a male partner. White speaks of negotiating with his adversary. He will combat their evil with truth, and if negotiations fail he will escalate to direct action including arrests. There is no hint of compromise. White objects to our opposition to the practice of homosexuality; but I do believe he misunderstands our views. For he said in an interview that United Methodists believe homosexuals "are incompatible with Christian teaching," misquoting our statement that the "practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
Soulforce members featured white T-shirts saying, stop the debate and carried signs saying "No exit without justice," of course, justice as defined by Mel White. That referred to a threat to block the exits of the convention center as delegates left, a threat which did not materialize. Rumors flowed about possible actions by Soulforce, and such rumors might well have been part of the tactics of intimidation.
Both Fred Phelps and Mel White claim to have the truth. They represent extremes which are not found frequently in our middle of the road United Methodist Church. We do not claim to have the truth, but we do follow the one, our Lord Jesus Christ, who said he is the way, the truth and the life. We reject the extremes of both groups. When you get opposed from both sides, you must be doing something right!
The convention said "no" to prodigal sons and daughters, but offered them no help in leaving homosexuality behind. It should also be pointed out that most delegates were inside the convention center. The Cleveland police did a wonderful job of managing the demonstrators and keeping them on the north side of the convention center. Most delegates entered from the south side and did not see what was going on. Inside a historic moment was taking place as the General Conference was addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, the head of the Anglican communion. Methodists, of course, broke away from that communion, and this was the first time an Archbishop of Canterbury had addressed a Methodist gathering. Threats to disrupt his appearance were not carried out.
Soulforce then began a Jericho march around the convention center. It did not fall down! This required them to march between the UM Decision signs and the Fred Phelps group. Some reported tears from the Soulforce people as they saw the "Fred go home" signs. One former lesbian, Andrea Gancarz, screamed at the Phelps group, "Love brought me out of homosexuality, not hate." This message was lost on Phelps who only hollered back more hateful tongue-lashings. Then members of Soulforce who wanted to be arrested stood at an agreed upon place and were gently taken into custody.
The whole event was carefully choreographed and worked out with the police, observed by a Cleveland group called the Peace Keepers, who volunteer their time for such demonstrations. What happened was only a shadow of what took place in the sixties.
Later that day, a proposal to engage in transforming ministry was rejected, 741-200, as one delegate compared the transforming movement to Fred Phelps. The damage had been done. Fred Phelps, who believes homosexuals cannot change, had succeeded as no transforming proposals were passed. The convention said "no" to prodigal sons and daughters, but offered them no help in leaving homosexuality behind. Nothing more was heard from Fred Phelps, but Soulforce was to return.
The next day, debate began inside the convention center on homosexuality. After the first vote a number of Soulforce demonstrators moved onto the floor. Bishop Dan Solomon of Louisiana handled the disruption so well, negotiating with them. They were allowed to remain and to speak to the delegates twice. They demanded that the delegates vote on a moratorium on homosexual issues for the next four years. That vote was taken, but the moratorium idea was rejected as it was not clear to anyone what that would mean. After the third vote went against them, they blocked the stage and were quietly arrested.
Even more serious, about 150 delegates stood in solidarity with Soulforce. Most conservative delegates I spoke with were torn up by this division; some even said they were in tears. Obviously the 2000 General Conference exposed a giant division over theology and morality in our church. It is one that will not easily heal.
We have a long way to go to become a church that is truly a hospital for sinners and not just a museum for saints. Yes, we held the line, but unless the United Methodist Church begins to engage in transforming ministry in the future, many who desperately want our help will be rejected and left to the extremes of Fred Phelps and Mel White. I pray that will not be so.
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