Who sets policy for the United Methodist Church? Only the General Conference can speak officially for the United Methodist Church. Every four years, delegates at each conference revise the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. The Social Principles, in both books, are described as a "prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions." The Book of Resolutions is not legally binding but serves as a guide for the church for reference, encouragement, study and support.
Controversy during the United Methodist Church’s 1997-2000 quadrennium swirled around a prohibition placed in the Social Principles by the 1996 General Conference. The Judicial Council ruled Aug. 11, 1998, that the following statement does have the force of church law: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." Clergy violating this prohibition can, according to the Judicial Council, be charged with violating the order and discipline of the church. They can be tried in a church court, and penalties upon conviction can include loss of ministerial credentials. The 2000 General Conference moved the statement from the Social Principles to a section of law and procedures dealing with ordained clergy, where it appears in a list of "unauthorized conduct."
An outline of the church’s current statements on homosexuality appears below, followed immediately by a historical outline of the controversy within the denomination. Relevant proposals rejected by the 2000 General Conference are also summarized.
The positions of The United Methodist Church on matters related to homosexuality are found in several sections of the current 2000 Book of Discipline and 2000 Book of Resolutions.
1. Regarding inclusiveness
Underlying all other positions of the denomination is the constitutional principle of "Inclusiveness of the Church," stated in Paragraph 4 of the Book of Discipline: "The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. Therefore all persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, to participate in its programs, and, when they take the appropriate vows, to be admitted into its membership in any local church in the connection."
2. Regarding the practice of homosexuality
(Part of a larger statement on "Human Sexuality" appearing in "The Nurturing Community," a section of the church’s Social Principles. Paragraph 161G. The 2000 General Conference added the sentence in boldface to this paragraph.)
"Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons."
3. Regarding equal rights
(Section H, Paragraph 162, of the Social Principles under "III. The Social Community.")
"Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation — Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons. We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting their rightful claims where they have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law. Moreover, we support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against gays and lesbians. We also commit ourselves to social witness against the coercion and marginalization of former homosexuals."
4. Regarding ordination
(From the Book of Discipline section dealing with the ordained ministry, Paragraph 304.3)
"While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals* are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."
*Footnote — " ‘Self-avowed practicing homosexual’ is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual."
5. Regarding homosexual unions
As noted earlier, the sentence "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches" was moved from the Social Principles section on marriage to a part of the Book of Discipline dealing with the behavior of ordained clergy.
While the sentence on same-sex unions was located in the Social Principles during the last quadrennium, it resulted in three clergy trials, a controversial investigation and a special session of the Judicial Council, the church’s equivalent of the Supreme Court.
The Rev. Jimmy Creech, a clergy member of the Nebraska Annual Conference, performed a union ceremony for two women at First United Methodist Church in Omaha Sept. 14, 1997. At the conclusion of a three-day church trial in Nebraska in March 1998, Creech was acquitted of violating the order and discipline of the church. He was again taken to trial in Nebraska in November 1999 after he performed a union ceremony for two men in North Carolina in April 1999. Between the trials, the church’s Judicial Council ruled Aug. 11, 1998, that the disciplinary sentence against same-sex unions is law and that clergy who violate the prohibition could be charged with disobeying the order and discipline of the church and could lose their ministerial credentials. That is what happened at Creech’s second trial. He is no longer a United Methodist clergyman.
Another United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Gregory Dell, a member of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, performed a union ceremony for two men Sept. 19, 1998, at Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago and was taken to trial March 25-26, 1999. There he was suspended from his ministerial duties. That suspension was lifted in summer 2000. Dell had been elected a delegate to the church’s 2000 General Conference from the Northern Illinois Annual Conference but was not seated because of the suspension.
Charges were filed against 69 United Methodist ministers who gathered Jan. 16, 1999, in a public building in Sacramento, Calif., to bless the union of two women. An investigation committee of the annual conference reviewed the charges and announced Feb. 11, 2000, that it would not place the clergy on trial and was dismissing the case. That decision, applauded by some and condemned by others, sparked a major debate across the church during the months before General Conference in Cleveland, May 2-12.
6. Regarding use of church money
(From the Book of Discipline section on "Administrative Order," dealing with the responsibilities of the churchwide "Council on Finance and Administration," Paragraph 806.9.)
"[The council] shall be responsible for ensuring that no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. The council shall have the right to stop such expenditures.* This restriction shall not limit the church’s ministry in response to the HIV epidemic."
* A footnote refers to Judicial Council Decision No. 491, which authorized the right of an annual conference to use funds to study homophobia, and No. 592, which gave the General Conference the right to create and fund a study of homosexuality.
7. Regarding homosexuals in the military
(A resolution passed by the 1996 General Conference. Found on Page 160 in the 2000 Book of Resolutions).
Homosexuals in the Military
"Basis: The United States of America, a nation built on equal rights, has denied the right of homosexuals to actively serve their country while being honest about who they are. Meanwhile, The United Methodist Church is moving toward accepting all people for who they are. The United Methodist Church needs to be an advocate for equal civil rights for all marginalized groups, including homosexuals.
"Conclusion: The U.S. military should not exclude persons from service solely on the basis of sexual orientation."
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History Of The Church’s Struggle With The Issue Of Homosexuality
(Note: Most of the following information is taken from a report to the 1992 General Conference from the Committee to Study Homosexuality.)
In the words of the 1988 General Conference, "the interpretation of homosexuality has proved to be particularly troubling to conscientious Christians of differing opinion."
The first public debate on homosexuality began at the 1972 General Conference, four years after the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches united to form the United Methodist Church.
In 1972, a four-year committee that had studied the Social Principles recommended new language, which included:
"Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured."
In floor debate, the following phrase was added to the above: "…although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."
This paragraph was the beginning of what the study committee on homosexuality calls "a long and painful struggle … which continues down to the present time."
When the Social Principles of the denomination were revised by the 1972 General Conference, the first mention of homosexual unions was made: "We do not recommend marriage between two persons of the same sex."
Efforts at the 1976 General Conference to rescind the official condemnation of homosexual practice failed. The 1972 position was retained. Delegates adopted three reports focusing on church funding. The first ordered "that no agency shall give United Methodist funds to any ‘gay’ organization or use any such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality." The second mandated "the use of resources and funds by boards and agencies only in support of programs consistent with the Social Principles of the Church." The third prohibited "funds for projects favoring homosexual practices."
The 1976 delegates also revised the language in the Social Principles related to homosexual unions: "We do not recognize a relationship between two persons of the same sex as constituting marriage."
Much of the debate at the 1980 conference centered on ordination questions. An unsuccessful effort was made to add the phrase "no self-avowed practicing homosexual therefore shall be ordained or appointed in The United Methodist Church." The General Conference noted instead that "the United Methodist Church has moved away from prohibitions of specific acts, for such prohibitions can be endless. We affirm our trust in the covenant community and the process by which we ordain ministers." A variety of other proposals on homosexuality also failed, leaving the 1972 and 1976 positions intact.
In 1980, specific reference to homosexual unions was removed from the Social Principles, but included was a statement that said, in part, "We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant, which is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman."
The 1984 General Conference made no changes in the Social Principles. Issues surrounding requirements for ordination again took center stage partly due to a 1983 Judicial Council ruling that the Book of Discipline did not prohibit the ordination or appointment of practicing homosexuals. After a long and complicated debate, the 1984 General Conference adopted, as a standard for ordained clergy, commitment to "fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness" and the following language on homosexuality: "Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church."
General Conference confronted issues related to homosexuality again in 1988 and 1992. Delegates at the 1992 conference voted to retain the church’s stand that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching" and left in place the ban on ordination, the prohibition of church funding to "promote the acceptance of homosexuality," and the statement in the Social Principles. One change was made in the Social Principles statement by the 1988 Conference and retained in 1992: "…Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons."
No General Conference has ever acted to withhold membership in the church from homosexuals.
The 1988 General Conference voiced a new recognition of the differing opinions on the issue in the church and of the basic good faith of United Methodists on all sides of the controversy. In a resolution establishing a study process for the 1988-1992 quadrennium, the delegates noted that "the interpretation of homosexuality has proved to be particularly troubling to conscientious Christians of differing opinion" and that "important biblical, theological, and scientific questions related to homosexuality remain in dispute among persons of good will."
Delegates instructed the General Council on Ministries (with offices in Dayton, Ohio) to conduct a study of homosexuality and report to the 1992 General Conference). The committee was instructed to:
- conduct a study of homosexuality as a subject for theological and ethical analysis, noting where there is consensus among biblical scholars, theologians and ethicists, and where there is not;
- seek the best biological, psychological, and sociological information and opinion on the nature of homosexuality, noting points at which there is a consensus among informed scientists and where there is not; and
- explore the implications of its study for the Social Principles.
Following the 1988 General Conference, the General Council on Ministries named a 27-member committee to conduct the study, which was released late in 1991. The General Council on Ministries received the study committee’s 33-page report and took no action other than to forward it to the 1992 General Conference delegates.
Seventeen members of the committee voted to ask General Conference to remove from the Social Principles the language condemning homosexual practice and replace it with an acknowledgment that the church "has been unable to arrive at a common mind" on the issue. Four members agreed that the committee found no common mind on the issue but recommended that the language in the Social Principles be retained.
Delegates to the 1992 conference voted 710-238 to retain the church’s stand that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching." They rejected the task force majority recommendation that the phrase be deleted because of the "lack of a common mind" in the church. The 75 percent majority opposing deletion of the words was about 5 percent lower than a similar vote in 1988. The bulk of the study committee’s report was recommended for study across the denomination during the 1993-96 quadrennium.
The 1996 General Conference added three significant points to the church’s position on homosexuality:
- a footnote defining "self-vowed practicing homosexual";
- a declaration that ceremonies to celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by United Methodist clergy or in United Methodist churches; and
- a call for the U.S. military not to exclude persons from service "solely on the basis of sexual orientation."
An attempt to replace the "incompatibility" clause with one acknowledging that United Methodists are "unable to arrive at a common mind" failed to pass by a 577-378 vote. Delegates approved a definition of "self-avowed practicing homosexual" as a footnote to the ordination reference. They rejected an effort to have "clear and convincing evidence" of the practice of homosexuality used as the basis for prohibiting ordination or appointment.
The 2000 General Conference added to the Social Principles a new statement: "We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends." The delegates also passed a resolution directing the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns to engage the church in a continued dialogue about homosexuality.
Delegates rejected a proposal that would have required all pastors to sign a statement professing that homosexuality is not God’s will. By a vote of 705-210, delegates declined to add to the church’s law book a stipulation that before pastors could be assigned to any church they had to sign a statement: "I do not believe that homosexuality is God’s perfect will for any person. I will not practice it. I will not promote it. I will not allow its promotion to be encouraged under my authority."
They also declined to add language to the Book of Discipline that would have made the performance of a same-sex union a chargeable offense even in states where such a ceremony is legal. The denomination already has the official position that same-sex unions shall not be conducted by United Methodist ministers and shall not be held in United Methodist churches. Violating that rule could lead to charges against a minister, according to the denomination’s Judicial Council.
Over the years, caucuses representing different positions on the issue formed within the church. At the 2000 General Conference, an ecumenical group named Soulforce led demonstrations outside the hall, and 191 people were arrested on May 10 for blocking an exit outside the convention center. The next day, a protest was held on the conference floor following the vote to retain the church’s stance on homosexuality. Disruptions during that protest resulted in the arrest of 30 individuals, including two bishops. The indoor demonstration was organized by AMAR, a coalition of United Methodist groups supporting the full inclusion of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals in the life of the church.
This information was copied and reformated from the Homosexuality Backgrounder from the official United Methodist web site.