General Conference took an early lunch today after gay rights activists gathered in the center of the delegate section, singing in protest of earlier votes that did not go their way.
“We will dismiss for lunch,” said Bishop Mike Coyner of the Indiana Conference, who was presiding when the protest continued after he tried to resume the plenary session after a brief break.
He promised that after lunch ”it will be delegates only in the hall. The marshalls and pages at the door will make sure that’s true.”
But a short while later, Bishop Scott Jones came to the General Conference newsroom to say the afternoon session would be open.
Leaders of the Common Witness Coalition, a gay rights group, continued to sing in the delegate area of the plenary hall during the lunch break. But the Rev. Karen Oliveto, a reserved delegate and pastor of Glide (UMC) Church in San Francisco, said the coalition was not asking that people stay there when the session resumes, and risk getting carried out or arrested.
She said that decision would be up to individuals. Asked what she would do, she said, “I’m praying about it.”
Several bishops were in conversation with the protesters during the break.
Delegates this morning had wrenching debate about, and a few votes on, the subject of homosexuality, about which the church has been openly divided for 40 years.
They voted against two “agree to disagree” statements that would have been added to the church’s Book of Discipline. One was offered by the Rev. James Howell of Charlotte, N.C., and another was offered by the Revs. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, pastors of two of the largest churches in the denomination.
“We were hoping to bring a bridge,” Mr. Hamilton said.
The vote regarding Mr. Howell’s motion – the main one – was 368 in favor and 572 against. His effort at such a statement had also failed in committee.
There were other votes scheduled today regarding homosexuality, though the early lunch break may have jeopardized that happening. Regardless, the early votes suggested strongly that the church will stick to its position, unusual now among mainline Protestant denominations, that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.
The intense debate has included an array of arguments, with some arguing that the UMC’s current position impedes church growth, and others arguing the opposite.
Some made the case that young people are alienated by the church’s positions. Others, including African delegates, argued that the Bible requires the church’s current position. One African delegate also pleaded that the more liberal American view would not be accepted in his cultural context.
Jennifer Ihlo, a lay delegate from the Baltimore/Washington Conference, identified herself as a lesbian in favor of the “agree to disagree” statement.
“I strongly urge the body to support this compromise so that gay youth and young people will recognize that the church loves them and God loves them and the violence and the pain and the suicide will stop,” she said from the floor.
The Rev. Steve Wende, a delegate from the Texas Conference, spoke against a compromise statement and in favor of maintaining the UMC’s current position.
“It is one thing to agree to disagree,” he said. “We all know that every healthy relationship has to have that component. It is another to stumble in our witness. If you look at our largest congregations, and crunch the numbers, they are all reaching young adults successfully. And, overwhelmingly, they teach and proclaim God’s truth without compromise.”
But Mr. Slaughter said Ginghamsburg Church, the Ohio mega-church he leads, is flourishing and full of “Christ-centered, Bible-believing Christians” even as it struggles with what to say about homosexuality.
“Somehow it’s working when we agree to disagree,” he said.
Mr. Howell’s statement said, in part:
“We know that all are God’s children and are of sacred worth; yet we have been, and remain, divided regarding homosexual expressions of human sexuality. Faithful, thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness. We continue to reason and pray together with faith and hope that the Holy Spirit will soon bring reconciling to our community of faith.”