(RNS) Delegates to the United Methodist Church General Conference shot down a strategy that would have allowed them to discuss contentious legislation in small groups.
The vote on the group discernment process, nicknamed “Rule 44,” stretched over three days and hinted at the tone that will follow at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore., where the quadrennial denominational conference is meeting until May 20.
The small-group discernment process had been proposed after delegates to the 2012 General Conference reported instances of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people being bullied and asked for a new way to discuss potentially divisive issues. Had the process been approved, it likely would have been suggested for use at this year’s conference to discuss the inclusion of LGBT people in the church.
The United Methodist Church does not ordain LGBT clergy or allow its clergy to perform same-sex weddings. More than 100 of the 1,043 petitions delegates will consider at the conference have to do with human sexuality.
“I think Rule 44 is the best chance we have for an honest conversation and to move past this fear of talking about LGBTQ people,” said delegate Dorothee Benz, a layperson from the New York Annual Conference.
Several delegates shared how their perceptions had been challenged by the kind of discussions Rule 44 would have allowed. Egmedio Equila, a clergyperson from the South Nueva Ecija Philippines Annual Conference, said those small-group, face-to-face meetings were familiar to his culture.
But opponents argued that delegates weren’t ready to implement such discussions and that they hadn’t been tested at any of the denomination’s regional groupings known as annual conferences.
Rule 44 was voted on Thursday (May 12) after so many motions and points of order were called that delegate Margie Briggs, a layperson from the Missouri Annual Conference, said, “I believe we’re confusing God at this point.”
It failed, with 57 percent of the 864 delegates voting against it.
The tension over LGBT inclusion during the meeting, which draws delegates from across the globe, was evident from the beginning. In a sermon at the conference’s opening worship, Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, reminded delegates: “As we discuss our different opinions about same-gender relationships, may we remember our dueling points of view are anchored in our desire to be faithful.
“We hold our respective positions as firmly as our conscience and experience dictates, but can we not also seek the path of unity among Christians with different views on this issue as we have on other disputed matters?”
During Communion, members of a group called Love Prevails held banners reading “Remember Me” and set up stations where worshippers could receive the bread and wine from Methodists who were openly LGBT.
And the Rev. Vicki Flippin of Church of the Village in New York City, part of Methodists in New Directions, said she was denied participation in the service if she did not omit a reference to LGBT people in a greeting she had planned to give. Representatives of the General Conference said the issue was naming a specific group, the issue was naming any specific group, not specifically naming LGBT people.
“As soon as you name one group, you need to name every group,” said the Rev. Laura Jaquith Bartlett, director of music and worship. “Otherwise, it takes away the power of the gospel message, which is that Jesus’ love is available to everyone.”