This report may only be encouraging to United Methodists who have been struggling for years against their denomination’s stand on homosexuality. As delegates meet in five regional (jurisdictional) conferences around the country this week, their main task is to elect and assign new bishops. But, as was evident yesterday from the conference in Dallas approving the Bush library at SMU, electing bishops is not their only business. In sharp contrast to the action taken at the United Methodist General Conference last spring, delegates to the denomination’s Northeastern Jurisdiction Conference meeting in Harrisburg, PA voted Thursday to support clergy in California who choose to perform same-gender marriages.
The delegates approved a resolution expressing respect for pastors in the California-Pacific and California-Nevada annual (regional) conferences “who as a matter of Christian conscience, spiritual discernment and prophetic witnessing” opt to participate in the celebration of same-gender marriages that are not approved by the church.The resolution also asks for lenient disciplinary action against clergy who disobey church law on the issue.
The first time the issue of homosexuality was addressed by a General Conference was in 1972. The position taken was this: "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." At each General Conference since that time, the position has been unsuccessfully challenged. It has been enlarged to include prohibition of ordaining homosexuals into the ministry of the church. And, in 1996 the General Conference took an action to prohibit ministers from performing ceremonies blessing same sex unions. At the 2008 General Conference, which met April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth, Texas, the denomination’s top legislative body, voted to retain its ban on same-gender marriages and to bar clergy from performing such marriages or consecrating them in the church.
On May 15, two weeks after the General Conference adjourned, the California Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on same-gender marriage, ruling that the state constitution protects that “right to marry.”
For those who have better things to do than try to understand United Methodist organizational structure but who want to make sense of this report, the General Conference represents the whole denomination and meets every four years. Jurisdictional Conferences represent the regions of the U.S. and also meet only once every four years; they are the ones meeting this week. Then, there are Annual Conferences who represent smaller regions and meet every year. There are two Annual Conferences in the state of California.
When the two California conferences met this year, following the General Conference but before the Jurisdictional Conferences, they responded to the State Supreme Court’s striking down the state’s ban on same gender marriage.
The church's California-Pacific Annual Conference, convening June 18-22 in Redlands, approved three measures that support same-gender couples entering into the marriage covenant. Each "encourages both congregations and pastors to welcome, embrace and provide spiritual nurture and pastoral care for these families," according to a June 27 letter to the conference from Bishop Mary Ann Swenson and other conference leaders.
That same week in Sacramento, the California-Nevada Annual Conference approved two measures on the same issue, including one that lists 67 retired United Methodist clergy in northern California who have offered to conduct same-gender marriage ceremonies. The resolution commends the pastors' work in offering continued ministry.The statements are the strongest yet on the issue by California United Methodists and have drawn cheers from gay rights advocates, who say the church and its pastors should extend to same-sex couples the same level of support it provides heterosexual couples.
Neither the Annual Conferences nor the Jurisdictional Conferences have authority to change law made by the General Conference, but the today’s action by the Northeast Jurisdiction supporting the Annual Conferences in California is another challenge to the homophobic policies of the church. The support was welcome in the west.
After the Northeastern Jurisdiction Conference resolution was passed, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the Los Angeles Area read it to the Western Jurisdiction Conference in Portland, Ore. Delegates and guests greeted it with a standing ovation.
Those of us who have opted to stay in the church and try to change the policies from within are heartened by the actions of our friends in the northeast. Thursday’s action may move the denomination closer to a split or one step closer to policies that truly reflect the motto of the denomination—“Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It remains to be seen what actions might be taken in other Jurisdictional Conferences.
We live in the confidence of that old African American proverb:
Lord, we’re not what we ought to be. But thank God we’re not what we used to be. And, by the grace of God, not yet what we will be.