Florida delegation says continued dialogue on homosexuality issue critical



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

Florida delegation says continued dialogue on homosexuality issue critical for church

May 1, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011  
tparham@flumc.org    Orlando {0843}

An e-Review Feature
By Tita Parham

FORT WORTH, Texas — Feelings among the Florida Conference delegation were mixed, but for some members, actions taken at the April 30 afternoon plenary session of the 2008 General Conference were surprising and saddening. 

Florida Conference delegates, the Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, director of Connectional Ministries for the Florida Conference, and the Rev. Debbie McLeod, superintendent of the South East District, stand in solidarity following the vote on homosexuality April 30 during the 2008 General Conference. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0828.

Delegates voted 517-416 to retain the church’s current stance on homosexuality found in the United Methodist Social Principles — that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
 
A majority report from the human sexuality subcommittee of the Church and Society 2 legislative committee recommended replacing that statement with “faithful and thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness.”
 
The 992 delegates instead approved a minority report from a smaller group of members of the legislative committee that retained the language and sought to further clarify the church’s beliefs on issues related to homosexuality. 
 
John “Jad” Denmark, a lay delegate from Anona United Methodist Church in Largo, was part of the subcommittee that recommended the new language. After sensing growing support for the minority report, he offered an amendment to the minority report stating: “Faithful, thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another, yet all seek a faithful witness. We continue to reason and pray together with faith and hope that the Holy Spirit will continue to move us all toward unity.”

In Denmark’s speech for the amendment, he said it “speaks to the truth of the last two or three hours (of debate). It says that we are one mind in the salvation of Jesus Christ, but not on this issue.”
 
The amendment was defeated.
 
Denmark said he was disappointed with the outcome. He said John Wesley urged the early church to find the middle road. In that same spirit, he said the church today is called to find the middle ground on this issue, especially when, as he believes, the “vast majority of human beings stand in the middle” on the issue.
 
“We all agree on the salvation of Christ, but we don’t agree on this,” he said. “We were not willing to be confessional, and if we’re not confessional and not honest, we won’t learn and grow.”

He said additional language in the minority report affirming sexual relations only “within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage” is more restrictive than the original stance in the Social Principles. He says the church’s beliefs on marriage are included in other areas of the Social Principles and not necessary in this statement.

John “Jad” Denmark, a lay member from Anona United Methodist Church in Largo and one of 26 Florida Conference delegates to the 2008 General Conference, makes an amendment in the plenary session debate on the issue of homosexuality April 30. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0829.

“It will say to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people, ‘you aren’t welcome here,’ ” he said. “The door to the church is getting more narrow. The strength of the words say people aren’t welcome.”
 
The Rev. David McEntire, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Lakeland and a member of the Church and Society 2 legislative committee, said he had known passing the majority recommendation would be difficult, but was “hopeful” it would. He said he was surprised the minority report passed.
 
Although it included statements affirming all people as “individuals of sacred worth created in the image of God” and asking “families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends,” McEntire agreed the language is “harsher.”
 
“There is a remarkable depth of compassion across our delegation about the issue,” he said. “Our default is to care for people, and this statement is counterintuitive to that.”
 
He also said it leaves “a lot of unanswered questions” and additional statements urging the church to support families in “providing age-appropriate education regarding sexuality to children, youth and adults” are problematic. He questions who will develop these materials and what they will say.
 
McEntire said, in some sense, the new language and debate help the church by raising “heart awareness.” In other ways, he said, it hinders the work of the church.
 
“Some people will come (to a United Methodist church) with the notion that we are very judgmental and exclusive,” he said. “I’m going to have to work harder to overcome it” as a pastor.
 
The Rev. Jorge Acevedo, senior pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, agreed the discussion was difficult and that within the gay and lesbian community the decision is “going to be painful.”
 
“We can’t live in denial that that (the language) doesn’t feel exclusive and not inclusive,” he said, but he hopes the local church can overcome that.
 
Acevedo voted in favor of the minority report.
 
“I’ve scoured Scripture, commentary, books on both sides, read stuff outside our tradition — I’ve done my homework and come to the same place” that the current stance is “the right one,” he said.
 
“There is nothing inside of me that wants to keep people away,” he added. “As a pastor, I want to be wrong on this issue. I don’t think I am.”

He said the debate has helped to re-sensitize him to the reality of the struggles people in same-sex relationships face.
 
In terms of the greater United Methodist family, Acevedo said accepting the changes would be a “line in the sand” for delegates in many of the Central Conferences, particularly “our African and Filipino brothers and sisters,” breaking the church’s relationship with them.
 
If the majority report had passed, instead of the church saying, “You can’t be with us,” Acevedo said, the Central Conferences would be saying, “We can’t be with you.”
 
The Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder said the minority report does not encourage continued participation “at the table” by diverse groups and its changes “effectively silence important voices.”

Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the Florida Conference chairs the plenary session dealing with the issue of homosexuality April 30 during the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0830.

“We weren’t affirming homosexuality, changing ordination or addressing issues of membership,” she said. “It’s regrettable we couldn’t find some way to acknowledge with humility the depth of our disagreement.”
 
After the vote was taken, delegates and members of groups in favor of changing the language stood in silent protest of the vote and then sang “Jesus Loves Me” while the remainder of the plenary session’s business was being completed. Some held hands and cried; others prayed.
 
Although it’s “hard to watch people stand and cry,” McEntire said, he felt it would not have been healthy to avoid the discussion.
 
Delegation agrees to disagree

Although members of the Florida Conference delegation do not agree on the issue, they developed a social covenant when they started their work to “live life in Christian unity with each other,” Acevedo said.
 
“We can disagree agreeably with each other,” he said, “which we understand to be the real essence of what holy conferencing is about.”
 
McEntire agreed and said the delegation is remarkable for its commitment to “not lose relationships … to stay in dialogue.”
 
The Rev. Phil Roughton, senior pastor of Christ Church United Methodist in Ft. Lauderdale, said he experienced a “covenant moment.”
 
“During all the voting, another member of our delegation came to me and ‘checked-in’ with me, asking, ‘Are you okay?’ ” he said. “This person didn't want to make any assumptions about our relationship.”
 
The problem, and challenge for the denomination as it moves forward, Acevedo said, is to multiply that in the rest of the church.
 
“The further away you get from your delegation, the more potentially explosive it can be,” he said.
 
Additional news reports on actions taken related to human sexuality include “Wrap-up: Assembly retains stance on homosexuality” and “United Methodists uphold homosexuality stance” at http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.3989547/k.5D84/General_Conference_News.htm.
 
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*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.




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