Florida United Methodists tackle homosexuality, church membership

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Florida United Methodists tackle homosexuality, church membership

Oct. 13, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
tparham@flumc.org    Orlando {0560}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND — They came from across the Florida Conference to discuss an emotional, spiritual and theological issue that has plagued and polarized The United Methodist Church and other denominations for years.

While many were pleased with the discussion on homosexuality and its impact on the church, others left the Conference Table on Christian Conferencing Sept. 23 feeling there was too liberal a bent toward the day and more should have been said.

Working through the process, respecting differing points of view

Several signs like this one were placed throughout the meeting area at the Conference Table on Christian Conferencing Sept. 23 to remind people of the ground rules for effective dialogue, designed to make it easier to discuss such a difficult topic as homosexuality and the church. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #06-450.

About 150 people gathered at First United Methodist Church, Lakeland, to begin discussing the issue. The day’s conciliatory tone was something the Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, director of the Florida Conference Connectional Ministries office, and the Conference Table planning team had hoped to achieve.
The session, the 15th since the Conference Table launched in 2002, stemmed from a motion Burkholder made at the conference’s annual gathering last June to table discussion on resolutions dealing with homosexuality and church membership, recent Judicial Council rulings and a letter written about those rulings by the Council of Bishops. The Conference Table was charged with developing a process that could be used to constructively discuss the issue, as well as other potentially divisive issues. The session modeled that process, focusing on homosexuality and the church.
Burkholder told the group, which also included more than 500 people tuning in by webcast, the goal was to move from the context of debate, which had threatened to disrupt the final day of the annual conference event, to the context of conversation.
“We will, in a context of holy conferencing, discover a process in which we are able to seek a deeper understanding of our various views, have a rich conversation with fellow Christians with whom we disagree and seek common ground between us,” she said.
She encouraged those in attendance to be the family of God and the body of Christ.
“We have no decisions to make, we’re not taking any votes. We are here to talk with each other,” she said. “ … What we want to come out of today is a process that helps encourage this conversation in other settings throughout the annual conference.”
Ground rules for effective dialogue were established early on to foster respectful discussion. They included imploring people to listen actively without judgment, speaking from the “I” position, maintaining discretion and respect, and refraining from shaming, blaming or attacking other speakers.
“And be aware that one person’s views or even our collective understanding of God’s vision can never come close to God’s vision,” Burkholder said in her opening remarks. “None of us can own that final word of God on a particular issue. Please participate today in this dialogue with both humility and openness to the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
Alice Williams, a member of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando and part of the day’s planning team, served as co-facilitator with Burkholder.
Williams briefly went through the day’s agenda and stressed the importance of finding common ground, as well as identifying areas on which United Methodists differ. As she approached a large pad on an easel, Williams encouraged people to go to microphones stationed throughout the room and share topics on which United Methodists do agree.
Some of the areas considered “stakes in the ground” regarding who United Methodists are included the belief that everyone is a child of God created in his image, all people have been saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and have been forgiven by the grace of the Holy Spirit, God loves every person unconditionally and equally, and we are all imperfect beings striving toward perfection in the Wesleyan tradition.
After completing the list and having some additional discussion the group watched a segment of a sermon on homosexuality by the Rev. Adam Hamilton. The sermon was from a series of sermons by Hamilton on controversial issues.

Hamilton is the founding pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. The church mushroomed from four people in 1990 to more than 12,000 adult members in 2006, with an average weekly worship attendance of more than 7,500. The church was listed as the most influential mainline church in America in a 2005 survey of American pastors.
Hamilton noted that homosexuality is mentioned in the Old Testament in Genesis 19:1-29; Leviticus 18:22; and Leviticus 20:13 and in the New Testament in I Corinthians 6:9-10; I Timothy 1:10; and Romans 1 26:2-4. He also described the difference between the progressive and traditionalist views on the subject.
“My friends who are progressive in The United Methodist Church take this position — they believe gays and lesbians who are followers of Jesus Christ should have all the rights and privileges of every other Christian that’s in the church,” Hamilton said. “They should have the right to be able marry, to be in leadership in the church, and they should be able to pursue, if God calls them, ordained ministry. They see this primarily as an issue of civil rights and justice. There is a great concern that we make second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God when we differentiate between those who are heterosexual and those who are homosexual.”
Hamilton said some people might be surprised to learn that these friends are not radical liberals, but evangelical, United Methodist Christians. He said they love Jesus and read the Bible daily, believing it is inspired by God. He said they see Scripture as relevant to homosexuality.
Progressives also believe society’s culture has changed, Hamilton said, and during Biblical times they had no concept of (sexual) orientation. They couldn’t see or understand things Christians today recognize, such as the role of women, for example. Biblical passages say women should be silent, and the Apostle Paul wouldn’t allow women to teach men. Hamilton said Biblical times were patriarchal, but today Christians realize women can hold leadership roles within the church.
“Traditionalists I know … are not people who are evil, spiteful, hard-hearted, callous or uncaring,” Hamilton said of the opposing view. “These are people who deeply care about homosexuals in their congregations; they have a deep love for people in the church, both heterosexual and homosexual. They have compassion and concern. Their hearts are heavy. They grieve and struggle to try to understand and make sense of this Scripture. They are also people who say they are bound by the Bible. They think God speaks through these words.”
Traditionalists fear that changing the Bible’s interpretation will cause a watering down of the gospel, Hamilton said. He said traditionalists believe the “unnatural” act of homosexuality represents the brokenness found in man. Traditionalists also believe sexual orientation is often decided before puberty and if someone is attracted to a person of the same sex, God is calling him or her to overcome that orientation, not act upon it. He said it is the same as God calling people to overcome their DNA-wired self-absorption and inward focus and instead put others first.
Traditionalists also believe in Biblical authority, Hamilton said, adding it’s a slippery slope to pick and choose which verses to uphold.

The Rev. Lois Rogers, left, reports the findings of her small group as Alice Williams, a member of the Conference Table planning team who served as co-facilitator of the day, transcribes the feedback on a large pad. Those who attended the meeting broke in four small groups to discuss different topics relating to homosexuality and the church. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #06-451.
After Hamilton’s video the Rev. Bill Roughton, a retired clergyman of the conference, addressed the group. He reminded people of the time when two United Methodist conferences existed in Florida — one white and one black — and how a workshop titled “How to Deal with Controversial Issues” was held 41 years ago by the two racially separate conferences. Four years later in 1969 the conferences merged into what is now the Florida Annual Conference, prompted by a resolution Roughton made during an annual conference session to merge the two.
Beginning with John and Charles Wesley Roughton said United Methodists have had a long history of reaching out to people who have been marginalized. He said prior to 1964 gays and lesbians were an urban subculture with little visibility or interaction with society.
Eight prominent Methodists were among the first 12 Protestant leaders to reach out with “genuine care and concern” May 31, 1964, at a meeting in San Francisco, Roughton said. The meeting lasted several days and took place to focus on the protection of gays from abusive and sometimes brutal treatment.
“The question is not whether we will minister to gays in our churches,” Roughton said. “The question is what is the most authentic Christian way to do it.”
The Rev. Sue Haupert-Johnson, an attorney before entering the ordained ministry, gave insight on Judicial Council Decision 1032. It affirmed pastors do have authority to approve or deny membership, addressing the case of the Rev. Edward Johnson, a United Methodist pastor in the Virginia Annual Conference who refused membership to an openly gay man attending his church. Johnson was placed on a yearlong involuntary leave of absence by his clergy peers, an action upheld by Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer, but a previous Judicial Council decision, No. 1031, effectively reinstated him
Haupert-Johnson gave an analysis of the case and examined dissenting and concurring opinions by members of the Judicial Council.

Burkholder then introduced a video featuring several gays and lesbians sharing their thoughts on reconciling their lifestyles with who God created them to be and individuals who have family members or friends who are homosexuals sharing personal stories of how homosexuality has impacted their lives. Burkholder said conference staff had a difficult time locating people with a more conservative foundation concerning homosexuality who were willing to share their beliefs.

After the presentation, participants were divided into four small groups led by facilitators to discuss a number of questions, such as is homosexuality a choice, is it a sin, should homosexuals be allowed membership in the church and should the church split over the issue. Facilitators then reported those responses to the entire group.
The small group discussion was designed to ensure everyone had an opportunity to share their views, while hearing others and getting a broader perspective on the issue. Discussion with the entire group was further intended to move the church into an evaluation of the larger process and receive input about ways to move forward.

After the small groups met, the groups came back together to share what they had discovered and identify what had emerged as areas of common ground.
The Rev. Daphne Johnson, pastor of College Heights United Methodist Church in Lakeland, said her small group decided a split would help the church gain time and energy currently being spent on the issue, but it would also cause the church to lose an important part of the whole, along with valuable dialogue and relationships. Johnson said her group also decided classifying homosexuality as a sin would cause a rejection of people; a loss of membership, resources and talent; and the church to be seen as an inclusive group.

The Rev. Mark Becker, associate pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville, said his group also discussed the ramifications of a church split and agreed such a division would enable the church to focus on other issues. Becker’s group differed regarding the question of homosexuality as a sin and said accepting the practice would cause the church to be transformed by society, rather than society being transformed by the church.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker prepares to serve communion at the close of the Conference Table to reaffirm the relationship participants have with each other and with God through the sharing of the sacrament. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #06-452.

The meeting ended with communion.

Assessing the day
After the meeting Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker said he had felt a good spirit in the conversations throughout the day and was encouraged that people are willing to be patient as they continue to discuss this issue.

“I thought it went very, very well,” he said. “This is the beginning of a continuing conversation. There should be some other formal opportunities for people to be in the (ongoing) conversation. I hope this sets the tone for other conversation.”
Matthew Stephenson, a candidate for clergy, said he was equally pleased with the events of the day. “I think we are Methodists and we agree to disagree,” he said. “It lived up to my expectations.”
Selma Marlowe, a member of Trenton United Methodist Church in Gainesville, was pleasantly surprised with how the day was planned and implemented. “I’m amazed,” she said. “There was a lot of food for thought. It’s not what I thought it would be. I thought it would be a whole lot of people struggling to talk.”
Burkholder agreed but said she regretted the group did not get the chance to talk about what happens after the Conference Table. “After the small groups met … we were rushed for time and did not get to complete the conversation about where we go from here.”

Burkholder said the planning committee has been reading evaluations of the process from participants to learn what could be improved for future gatherings.

One area of concern was the small-group breakout time. One participant said the groups — which included 25 to 30 people in each — were too large to foster a true sense of dialogue. Others felt statements used to help prompt the discussion were confusing.

The evaluations also indicated some participants felt Hamilton represented one side of the issue and that portion of the day could have offered a more balanced presentation if equal time had been given to someone who held a more conservative point of view.

Participants felt the video of Florida Conference members adequately displayed the pain experienced by gays, lesbians and those who love them, but it was criticized for not including comments from people within the conference who feel pain because of their deeply held conviction that homosexuality is a sin and those who engage in it will not be saved.

“Some folks really felt like there was a liberal bias to the process, especially the video that we made — and are continuing to work on,” Burkholder said. “Many were frustrated by the lack of time given to the small groups — they were cut short and, therefore, did not create the opportunity for dialogue in the way we had hoped.”

Others were not pleased information used to prepare for the day was repeated unnecessarily during the event and the resolutions presented at annual conference were not discussed.

Burkholder, who has been in touch with some of the participants, said the planning team is taking the evaluations seriously as it determines the “next steps for this process of dialogue.”
The webcast of the Conference Table was recorded and will be available on DVD. There is no charge for the DVD, but those interested in receiving one must place their orders online at http://www.flumc2.org/page.asp?pkvalue=999 (the link for the order form is at the bottom of the page).


This article relates to Conference Table/Homosexuality and Church Membership.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.

Contact Us

The Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church

450 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue
Lakeland, FL 33815

(863) 688-5563 or toll free (800) 282-8011