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Methodist General Conference to discuss LGBT issues — again

Peg Isaacson, left, chair of the Reconciling Ministries Task Force at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, and the Rev. Wendy A. Witt, one of the church's pastors, pose for a photo after its services on May 3, 2016, urging the then-upcoming United Methodist Church General Conference to recognize "it's time" for the full inclusion of LGBT church members and clergy. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

CHICAGO (RNS) “It’s time,” said the Rev. A. Wendy Witt during Sunday services at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple.

Time to open the doors of the church to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, that is.

First United Methodist is one of the more than 750 congregations within the United Methodist Church that form the Reconciling Ministries Network, dedicated to including LGBT people in a denomination that bars them from ordination and does not allow its ministers to officiate same-sex weddings.

On Sunday, the network celebrated “It’s Time Sunday,” part of its “It’s Time” campaign intended to push the 7 million-member denomination to address the issue during its May 10-20 General Conference, a quadrennial meeting of Methodists from around the world.

More than 100 petitions relating to human sexuality have been submitted to the church’s top governing body. The denomination’s 864 elected delegates will consider them when they meet in Portland, Ore.

“It’s the perennial issue that will not go away, and for better or for worse, it’s the main battle flag issue between the liberal side of the church and the conservative side of the church,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion & Democracy.

Issues regarding sexuality have been discussed at every conference since the 1972 General Conference added language to the Book of Discipline calling homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Those discussions have been characterized by “lots of anguish and emotion and demonstration and disruption and sometimes police involvement,” according to Tooley.

But this year is different, said the Rev. Gil Caldwell, who was arrested at the General Conference 16 years ago while protesting the adoption of the sexuality provisions.

“The fact that same-sex marriage is now legal in the U.S.A. … that certainly ought to have an impact at a General Conference meeting after that fact,” Caldwell said.


RELATED: Rev. Gil Caldwell, a ‘foot soldier’ for civil rights, turns his eye to LGBT rights


Church research shows 46 percent of U.S. members agree with the church’s ban on same-sex marriage.

But crucially, the denomination is growing overseas and particularly in Africa, where homosexuality is banned in many countries. More than 40 percent of delegates will come to the General Conference from outside the U.S.

“There’s almost no doubt that if the United Methodist Church were a U.S.-only denomination, it would be where the other U.S.-only mainline Protestant denominations are on this issue,” Tooley said.

Tooley’s ecumenical Institute on Religion & Democracy, which describes itself as a voice for “Christian orthodoxy,” does not support a change, and he said he expects the General Conference to reaffirm its policies, possibly even strengthen them.

Still others — such as Peg Isaacson, chair of First United Methodist’s Reconciling Task Force — would be happy if the denomination simply allowed individual congregations to choose for themselves how to welcome gays.

All three positions are represented in the petitions delegates will consider at the General Conference, which will begin with a debate on how to debate the issue. The commission that oversees the gathering has proposed a group discernment process, nicknamed “Rule 44,” that would allow delegates to discuss contentious issues in small groups.

That way, Isaacson said, “people are looking at each other and talking to each other, rather than just testifying at a legislative committee.”

Among the plans to streamline all the legislation regarding sexuality is “The Simple Plan” supported by the Reconciling Ministries Network. That would change six paragraphs in the denomination’s Book of Discipline.

As the General Conference approaches, the “It’s Time” campaign was one of several drawing attention to what’s at stake in the debate.

Last week, the Rev. Val Rosenquist and retired Bishop Melvin Talbert co-officiated the wedding of a same-sex couple in North Carolina.

And this week, 15 clergy and clergy candidates in the New York Annual Conference came out in an open letter, saying, “We are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer clergy and candidates.” In another open letter, the chairs of the Baltimore-Washington Conference and New York Conference boards of ordained ministry called on other Methodist conferences to join them in no longer asking candidates about their sexual orientation.


RELATED: Kansas pastor steps out of the closet and into the crosshairs


On It’s Time Sunday, First United Methodist spent time in prayer for the bishops, delegates, staff and volunteers at the General Conference, as well as for “civility.” After the service, clergy and congregants such as Church Council Chair John Barker posed for photos inside a blue frame painted with the words, “Dear church … it’s time.”

Barker smiled alongside his wife, Kathy, and their 12-year-old daughter, Sophie. It was important to him for his family to take a stand, he said, echoing the theme of the day, “because it’s time for the church to change.”

“We support inclusion efforts and trust that the delegates to General Conference will hear God’s call to eliminate language that discriminates and live into God’s call that all means all,” he said.

(Adelle M. Banks contributed to this report)

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

33 Comments

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  • The church doors have always been open to all people.
    Holding a sign saying “it’s time” – does that mean it is time to allow leaders to openly sin and go against the Bible?

  • It means that it’s time to recognize that persons shouldn’t be called into a life of celebacy, when they are not ordered that way. It’s time to affirm that persons in relationships that are in committed, monogamous relationships, among adults, should be honored.

  • The DOORS have always been open, just not the pulpits. Prayerfully that will not change.

  • Here is a list of sins from the closing verses of Romans, ch 1. unrighteous, fornicator, wicked, covetous, malicious; envious, murderer, deceitful, maligning others, slanderer, hater of God, spiteful, proud, boaster, inventor of evil things, without understanding, promise breaker, without mercy.

    Does anyone think a person should be allowed to be a pastor who continuously lives this way? The answer is a resounding “no”!

    But in the same list, lesbianism and homosexuality are also placed. And in fact Paul not only condemns those who continuously do what is in the above list, but also condemns lesbianism and homosexuality equally, if not more so.

    If a person cannot be pastor because they are continuously a “hater of God”, “without mercy” or “malicious”, what makes you think LGBTQ persons can be? Is this way of living somehow excluded from Paul’s list? No it is not. Likewise, can a member of a church continuously live this way be a member in good standing, seeing they go on continuously sinning against God?

    Is this the “Word of God” or not? Does it matter what God says is right or wrong?

  • Glad to hear there are no women ministers, no divorced people, and that slavery was never a part of the Methodist faith.

  • Here’s something to always remember about what Paul said of his own writings —

    …our knowledge is partial and incomplete

    …we see things imperfectly…

    …All that I know is partial and incomplete…

    (1 Corinthians 13:9,12)

    Those verses importantly reveal that whatever negativity Paul wrote about LGBTs is very questionable as to divine value or authority and are not based on modern and realistic attitudes that are more positively expressed today.

    And they are excellent examples that ‘teach us’ that Paul’s writings are too partial, too incomplete and too imperfect to be meaningful and useful for everybody in every situation.

  • If God calls an LGBTQ person into ministry, who are we as a church to prevent someone from living into that calling?

  • For they preach, but do not practice.

    They build up heavy burdens, hard to carry, and lay them on people’s shoulders,
    but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything
    they do is meant to be seen by others. They make their prayer books wide and
    the fringes of their prayer shawls long, and they love the place of honor at
    feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the marketplaces,
    and being called teacher by others. But you are not to be called teacher, for
    you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call any man your
    father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called
    instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you
    shall be your servant.

    Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be
    exalted.

    —Jesus, the Christ, Matthew 23:3-12

  • Your “reporting” is so biased and one-sided that it makes Fox News look like NPR.

  • Paul is wrong about all kinds of things. He frequently contradicted his lord himself. For example, Jesus said no divorce except for adultery. Paul. Gave us the Pauline exception.

    Paul condemns homosexuality and lesbianism equally, if not more so? Lesbians aren’t mentioned at all. That’s YOUR interpretation. If not Moreso? That’s your interpretation again. All of the other things on Paul’s little list of who never will be missed? Funny how they don’t seem to make any of the lists of the people who regularly condemn gay people using Paul: for example, the people who regularly tell the most outrageous lies about gay people in order to demonize us. Funny how you never see Paul’s little list being employed regularly against all of the other people that are on It.

    Why. You’d almost think it really has nothing to do with anything except prejudice.

    Why, you’d almost think

  • If God calls a practicing alcoholic to be a minister should he be prevented from living into that calling?

  • Either sin is real or it isn’t. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. However if one refuses to acknowledge or repent of their own sin, there is separation from God. This includes all sins not just homosexuality.

  • The activists want it split. They seek to divide. This is not the first group to be targeted.

  • Ok, so make the church a free for all. I say since Paul is so wrong, I should have sexual relations with all the women in my church. This is how you sound to me. Anyway, reject the Bible is rejecting God. Repent or perish, as Jesus put it. God is the one with the prejudice towards sin, by the way.

  • So Jews have rejected God? Nice to know.

    Muslims say the same thing. Reject the Quran, reject God. Nice company you keep.

  • If that’s how I sound to you, then you are not listening to me, I didn’t say you should lust after all of the women in your church. You did. Sounds like you are a serious sinner and should get yourself to church to confess your sins of lust, adultery, and intended fornication.

  • That you believe that the Bible is the Word of God does not make it so. What evidence convinces you that it is?

  • The person who has God living in them already has the Word of God living in them. The written word is confirmed by the internal Word of God, who is Jesus Christ.

  • It sure would be nice if a certain class of so called Christian actually believed that.

  • The activists don’t want it split. The hardline traditionalists do. Our way or the highway. It’s what they did to the episcopal church, what they tried to do with the Presbyterians, what they will do with the Methodists.

  • Your first sentence seems to say that one can do just fine without ever consulting the Bible if they have God living in them. I agree.

    With regard to your second sentence: you appear to start out by claiming that the Bible somehow confirms itself (a circular logic failure) and then, for some reason, add “who is Jesus Christ” appearing to claim that the written word is Jesus Christ – something that is, at a glance, a rather bizarre claim in my view.

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