Tampa — Delegates at the United Methodist Church’s global convention on Thursday rejected proposals to eliminate a rule declaring homosexuality “incompatible” with Christianity. The 572 to 368 vote was a defeat for gay rights activists who have tried for years to change church doctrine.
“God is weeping,” said Karen Oliveto, pastor at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, and a leader in the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, which is trying to eliminate church rules condemning same-sex relationships.
In recent years, most mainline Protestant denominations — the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ — have permitted the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy members and the blessing of same-sex marriages. But the United Methodist Church, with 12 million members worldwide including 7.85 million worshipers in the United States, has resisted such changes. Its doctrine declares homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” prohibits ordination of openly homosexual men and women, and bans same-sex weddings, while urging churches not to reject gay parishioners.
But that doctrine is subject to change. Every four years, United Methodists hold a global convention called the General Conference, similar in form to a legislative session, where nearly 1000 delegates from California to the Democratic Republic of the Congo legislate policy on issues such as bishops’ appointments to books of prayer. No issue here, however, has captured as much attention as the question of whether the Church should continue to declare homosexuality a sin.
Across the street from the Tampa Convention Center, gay rights advocates erected a warehouse-sized white tent, which served as the site of lobbying strategy sessions and a staging area. Every day, volunteers handed out flyers in Portuguese, Swahili and other languages to conventioneers, promoting doctrinal change. Gay rights advocates said during speeches on the conference floor that biblical passages condemning homosexuality should be compared to biblical writings supporting slavery, and the subjugation of women — passages which no longer guide United Methodist doctrine.
The Love Your Neighbor Coalition oversees the lobbying effort. It has received financial support from such groups as the Arcus Foundation and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr., Fund. Those foundations have donated more than $500,000 to efforts promoting change within the church, according to Randal Miller, a professor at Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion professor Randal Miller.
“I think our theology has room for understanding of gay and lesbian people as children of God and as full members of the church,” said Miller, who leads the committee organizing the conference, and also leads the church delegation from Northern California, whose members support a more inclusive doctrine.
Four blocks away, at the Tampa Hyatt Regency, evangelical United Methodists, hosted deluxe breakfasts, urging attendee delegates to oppose proposals advancing gay rights. Tom Lambrecht, the general manager of Good News, a $600,000 per year nonprofit that urges the church to take conservative positions on social issues, says his group has spent $200,000 on a conference lobbying effort.
“To declare, as a church, that homosexuality is permitted and allowable, and even a good thing, would be a direct contradiction of scripture,” said Lambrecht, who converted a Hyatt suite into a campaign war room, complete with computers, fax machines, printers, and lobbyists talking on cell phones.
Church demographics are moving in Lambrecht’s favor. More than a third of the delegates at the Tampa convention are African. Even if a majority of U.S. delegates support changing church doctrine on homosexuality, the issue is a non-starter for most African delegates.
“In my country we just came out of a war that killed many people, and we are still struggling with reconciliation. We need more schools, more hospitals, more churches, and more bibles,” Henda Kibonda, a pastor who leads a 400-parishoner church in rural Angola. “Homosexuality is not what we came here to discuss.”