Delegates to General Conference seek removal of anti-gay language
In 1990, Shirley Cooper and her husband walked out of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, at Cedar Springs Road and Oak Lawn Avenue, after a pastor told members gays and lesbians weren’t welcome there.
Twenty-two years later, Cooper, one of the founders of PFLAG Dallas, is in Tampa this week, where the UMC is holding its General Conference.
Cooper, who joined Northaven UMC after leaving Oak Lawn UMC, is one of several local Methodists who continue to push for the church to become more inclusive of LGBT people.
Even her former church, while not officially open and affirming, now describes itself as “amazingly diverse in its people’s culture and lifestyles.”
The UMC’s General Conference in Tampa began on April 24 and continues through May 4. The two-week meeting is held every four years.
Methodist opposition to discrimination is clear, but so are the UMC’s policies discriminating against its gay and lesbian members. The Rev. Eric Folkerth, the straight senior pastor at Northaven UMC, calls those contradictory policies “maddening.”
For example, the 2008 Book of Resolutions includes a statement opposing “all forms of violence or discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice, or sexual orientation.”
Yet the General Council on Finance and Administration “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.”
Folkerth said that as much as he would like to see his church’s policies toward gays and lesbians change, he doesn’t think a lot of time will be devoted to the issue at this year’s meeting.
“It’s disheartening,” he said. “People’s minds are elsewhere. More than anything, this conference has to do with restructuring.”
Among the restructuring proposals are one that would do away with guaranteed appointments for ministers and one that would give bishops the power to remove clergy.
Folkerth called that an unchecked power that would allow a bishop to remove clergy for any reason including disliking women or older men, or being too liberal or too conservative. Folkerth fears he could lose his position because he could be viewed as too pro-gay, if the rule change is adopted.
The Rev. Troy Plummer is the executive director of the Chicago-based Reconciling Ministries Network. Plummer said on LGBT issues, the American church is becoming more tolerant.
He thinks that there is no consensus on restructuring.
“It will take heavenly intervention for us to find a path forward on restructuring,” he said.
But he’s more hopeful on the gay and lesbian issue.
“I am absolutely convinced with all my heart, if you took a vote of American delegates, the exclusive language would be removed,” he said.
The wording he referred to states, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
That language is the basis for not ordaining “practicing” homosexuals, refusing to allow clergy to marry same-sex couples and even excluding gays and lesbians from church membership in isolated cases. Plummer thinks a resolution to remove the offending language has a chance of passage. He said his organization will have hundreds of volunteers working at the conference.
Mary Lowrance is the minister of congregational life at Northaven UMC but she surrendered her orders when she came out and she cannot perform weddings, confirmations or baptisms.
She said that at the 2008 conference, held in Fort Worth, the resolution to remove the Incompatibility Clause was defeated narrowly.
“It’s got to happen this year, or we’ll be in a period of darkness,” Lowrance said. “It’s a critical year.”
Lowrance said she was cautiously optimistic but doesn’t know what the chances are.
If it does pass, she could seek reinstatement.
“I left in good standing,” she said.
But exactly what the process would be or how long it would take for ministers like her to be reinstated she doesn’t know.
“It would have to follow a long period of prayer before I’d put my family through that,” she said.
Meanwhile, Cooper will be quietly trying to influence the delegates.
“We’ll be wearing stoles that represent the church being inclusive,” Cooper said.
She said that in Fort Worth in 2008, the stole she wore started a number of conversations. One person sat down with her for dinner and told her she knew there would be someone friendly at the table.
Cooper said the strategy of this conference is narrower than in the past. They want to just pass one thing. “Take out those very insulting words in the [Book of] Discipline,” she said.
Of the 988 voting delegates to the conference, 40 percent are from outside the U.S. Folkerth said the group of delegates of most concern to him will come from several countries in Africa that have oppressive laws against the LGBT community. Countries such as Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and Tanzania will have quite a bit more representation this year.
Those delegates are expected to hold much more conservative views on sexual orientation than American delegates.
Plummer said his group will be providing translators and will be engaging the international delegates.
Lowrance said, “Younger members of the African Conference understand the issue better.”
“After the last conference, we lost members,” Folkerth said, and he’s bracing for that again.
He said it isn’t practical to change everyone’s heart on the issue of inclusion immediately, adding that he’d be happy with a local option.
“For the sake of mission, unleash the holy spirit so churches who want to be fully inclusive at all levels may do so,” he said.
Committee work continues through the first week of the conference, and resolutions will be brought to the floor for a vote of the delegates the second week.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2012.