We who are many are one body."
Those words, on a long white banner hanging over the main lobby inside the Cleveland Convention Center, border a drawing of a torso and arms covered by a long-sleeved clerical vestment. The arms are outstretched; the brown-hued hands face upward, as if toward heaven.
Indeed, the people here to attend the United Methodist Church (UMC) General Conference 2000 are many. The 992 delegates of the denomination's top policy-making body come from all over the world for this quadrennial gathering. They are men and women; clergy and lay; single and married; liberal and conservative; heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual. Worship services at the conference embrace a wide array of traditions: African tribal drumming, Asian hymns, liturgical dance, traditionally sober and reverent Protestant prayer, rousing gospel singing, Spanish-language call-and-response prayer.
Yes, these people, these Methodists, are many. And when asked, most will say, with differing degrees of assurance, that they are one body that embraces diversity. But you can sense that this body is dangerously fragile. Long before this year's conference opened on May 2, the battle lines were being drawn. The United Methodist Church is at war with itself -- a loving war, both sides insist, but a war nonetheless -- over the issue of homosexuality.
"Schism" is a powerful word, and a frightening one for many Christians devoted to their denomination. But it's a word that has been coming up more and more in Christian gatherings both formal and informal, in ministries and activist organizations, and on the Internet. And it hangs over the large-scale policy meetings that three of the nation's largest Protestant denominations have held or are currently holding this year.
The Southern Baptist Convention's stand on homosexuality, which three years ago played into their decision to do battle with Disney over Gay Days, rarely generates the headlines it once did. Instead the focus is on Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians -- more moderate groups whose debates give hope to gays and lesbians seeking an equal place, and eventually a blessing of their unions, within those mainline denominations.
The Methodists hold a prominent position. "The UMC is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.," says the Rev. Mel White, explaining his planned protest at the Cleveland convention with Soulforce, an ecumenical group that uses nonviolent methods and teachings to battle homophobia in the nation's churches. "Whichever way the Methodists go, so goes the country."
Widening cracks in the Methodists' "one body" are clearly visible. In 1998, the Rev. Jimmy Creech, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Neb., was brought up on church charges for presiding over a same-sex commitment ceremony between two women. He eluded conviction thanks to vague language in UMC's doctrinal handbook, the Book of Discipline, which barred ministers from presiding over same-gender unions but did not specify how they would be held accountable for doing so. In response, the UMC's highest court strengthened the language to make clear that ministers who did so could be tried and defrocked. When Creech presided over another such ritual last year, the church court stripped him of his ministerial orders. The Rev. Gregory Dell of Chicago, who also had blessed a same-gender couple, was suspended for a year, and returned to the pulpit only this month.
The church's hard line has been met with growing defiance. In January of last year, a group of Methodist clergy, the so-called "Sacramento 68," presided collectively over the union of two women in California. Charges against them are pending. As of Feb. 19 of this year, 374 Methodist clergy had signed a statement supporting holy unions for all couples.
Meanwhile, the right-wing Institute on Religion and Democracy is publishing reports and sponsoring lectures and how-to events on battling hate-crimes initiatives and pushing legislation defining marriage as a male-female union. Churches belonging to the conservative, evangelical Confessing and Good News movements are speaking out for upholding traditional Christian values and affirming the authority of an inerrant Bible. The group Transforming Congregations is providing information, resources and training in so-called "ex-gay" ministries for churches, and spiritually based counseling for those "struggling to leave the homosexual lifestyle" or "desiring freedom from sexual brokenness."
These and other "renewal" groups are part of United Methodist Decision 2000, a coalition focused on promoting conservative ideals at the 11-day General Conference. Calling itself a "forum for scriptural Christianity," the coalition has stepped up a campaign to uphold church prohibitions against homosexuality, same-gender marriage and the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." Before the conference, it sent a videotape to each delegate, a professional-looking production that urged recipients to affirm strict adherence to a literal interpretation of Scripture and uphold the Book of Discipline as is. The church has spent too much time on the homosexuality issue since the matter first arose at the UMC 1972 General Conference, the tape's earnest narrator insists. It's time for gay-affirming congregations to accept the decisions of previous conferences, he says; if they cannot, they should be permitted to leave the denomination "amicably." The message is clear: Get with the program or get out.
Among Methodists, the video only made public the tension running through conservative UMC churches. And while many speakers and activists on the right speak against homosexuality in stern, authoritative tones, they express sadness as well. "I understand that `homosexual` people are hurting. They feel their church has let them down," Andrea Gancarz of Stop the Cycle Ministries, an ex-gay outreach program in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., says on the video. "If people decide that they have to go, I wish them love. Still, our church body would be diminished by losing them. And it's devastating -- frustrating -- to think things might come to this sooner or later."
The sadness and frustration are equal among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Methodists and their heterosexual supporters over what they perceive as injustice within their faith community. Many gay delegates to the conference confide a growing realization that if the UMC continues its refusal to grant gays full participation, they'll be forced to find community elsewhere. "I don't want to leave," says one such member (who asked not to be identified), her dark brown eyes filling with tears which she quickly brushes away. "I love my church, and my heart is all torn up. But after a point, if you want any spiritual validation at all, what choice do you have? I'm a lifelong Methodist who happens to be queer, and I want to be a full part of my church's life. If things don't change, I'll have no other choice but to leave. And it doesn't look like things will change."
Like the UMC, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is promoting unity and oneness in preparation for its annual General Assembly in Long Beach, Calif.; preconference materials bear the slogan, "For all are one in Christ." Unlike their UMC peers, the leaders of the Presbyterian Church are not gearing up for a major showdown over gay rights this year. Last year, General Assembly delegates approved conference moderator Freda Gardner's request that they declare a one-year moratorium on discussing ordination and homosexuality, leaving the subject off the church agenda until 2001.
"I believe the moratorium would give both sides of the debate an opportunity to take a break, work on other pressing issues, and prayerfully consider how best to achieve unity and diversity in the church," Gardner said in advance of the conference. "I certainly understand that gays and lesbians are suffering, as are people on the other side, who are just as well-intentioned and want what they see as what is best for the church."
One of the first items on the General Assembly's agenda is a motion to end the moratorium. Should it pass, a host of proposals dealing with ordaining noncelibate gays will be fair game for consideration. Among them is one calling for the repeal of section G-6.0106b in the "Presbyterian Book of Order," which mandates celibacy for unmarried clergy. Since gay and lesbian Presbyterians cannot marry, G-6.0106b bars homosexuals unwilling to commit to a life without physical intimacy from ordained ministry. Indeed, 12 percent of the overtures filed before the start of the assembly dealt with homosexuality.
In the meantime, moratorium or no, pro-gay organizations such as More Light Presbyterians and That All May Freely Serve are working full-time to promote their cause, while conservative and fundamentalist forces such as the Presbyterian Coalition and the Presbyterian Renewal Network work tirelessly to make sure the denomination upholds traditional biblical standards.
Even the church leadership is putting the issue in the forefront. The denomination's highest court, the Permanent Judicial Council (PJC) of the General Assembly, recently ruled that Presbyterian clergy can bless same-gender unions, provided it is made clear that the ceremony is not a marriage. (The ruling includes a caveat that the decision is not an endorsement of same-gender sex.) The court also decided the case of an openly gay candidate for ordination who said he is presently celibate but expects eventually to settle into a committed relationship. The PJC ruled that since the candidate is not presently in violation of G-6.0106b, he may continue in the ordination process (although his ultimate ordination might rest on remaining celibate, committed union or not).
The Presbyterian Coalition cried foul over this apparent OK of same-sex unions. "Even if all the participants in same-sex-union ceremonies diligently adhere to the PJC's admonitions, such ceremonies in a worship setting conducted by Presbyterian clergy in Presbyterian churches nevertheless are -- to use the PJC's own words -- 'services blessing a same-sex relationship' between 'same-sex couples,'" the coalition opined in a statement on the ruling. "This inescapably sends a message of endorsement of a same-sex relationship having a sexual dimension and finding expression in intimate sexual practices."
Responding to the controversy, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick -- the General Assembly's elected "stated clerk" -- penned a pastoral letter clarifying the ruling. The letter did not go over well in conservative circles: The Rev. Winfield "Casey" Jones, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pearland, Texas, promptly announced he would run for Kirkpatrick's position. Jones has not disagreed publicly with the PJC ruling, but he raised objections to Kirkpatrick's letter because it did not mention the Book of Confessions -- the volume that, with the Book of Order, forms the church's constitution and that characterizes same-gender sex as a sin.
Also, in answer to pro-gay presbyteries' calls for the repeal of G-6.0106b, the Beaver-Butler Presbytery of Pennsylvania proposed its own overture to the General Assembly. Under its plan, churches unwilling or unable to live with the "Book of Order" in its present state would be allowed to leave and retain church property.
"That will not happen," Gardner asserts. "Church property belongs to its presiding presbytery." And the outgoing moderator says that, unlike the Methodists' conference, the Presbyterian assembly will not erupt over the issue: "We are a representative government that believes in doing things decently and keeping things in order. The proceedings will not be messy; I guarantee that. You'll see much less of a free-for-all than you may have seen elsewhere. ... Whatever happens, we will get through it together."
Gardner's words are prophetic; the proceedings are not messy. When the General Assembly opens on June 24, the moratorium is upheld. All overtures regarding ordination of homosexuals, and a request for an interpretation of G-6.0106b, are put off until the 2001 meeting. And Clayton Kirkpatrick is unanimously elected to another four-year term as stated clerk.
Among those keeping an eye on the events of the UMC General Conference in Cleveland is the Very Rev. Tracey Lind, dean of that city's Trinity Episcopal Church and the first out lesbian to be installed as a dean by the Episcopal Church. But she is more involved with getting ready for the U.S. Episcopal Church's own general convention, which opened in Denver July 5 and runs through July14.
The Episcopal Church is less fractured over homosexuality than its Methodist and Presbyterian cousins. The three most recently ordained deans -- Lind and male clergy in San Jose, Calif., and Seattle -- are openly gay. Integrity, a worship and fellowship group for GLBT Episcopalians, thrives in many parts of the country. Statements by the North American Deans' Conference make reference to "partners" as well as "spouses." Says Lind, "We're farther along in the conversation" than other denominations.
In large measure, this is because the Episcopal Church is structurally less doctrinaire than other mainstream Protestant denominations, or the Roman Catholic Church. Episcopalians are part of the Anglican Communion, a global fellowship of autonomous Anglican churches. It is Protestant in that it adheres to the anti-papist precepts of the English Reformation, but the word from which it takes its name refers to the Catholic tradition of government by bishops. Episcopal dioceses are mostly free to make their own determinations regarding ordination of priests; the church allows ordination of women, and some bishops ordain gays and lesbians, most notably John Shelby Spong of the Diocese of Newark, N.J. Spong ordained Lind in 1987 (although she did not come out publicly until 1995).
As relatively tolerant as the denomination is, it is not without fissures over homosexuality. Spong has been and continues to be a lightning rod for controversy; his ordinations of noncelibate gays run counter to a resolution passed at the 1979 General Convention opposing the practice. Conservative and fundamentalist Episcopal congregations in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia have either severed ties with the Episcopal Church or sought oversight -- especially when dealing with sexuality-related issues -- from conservative bishops outside their own dioceses. Organizations such as Episcopal Action (an arm of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy) promote strict adherence to a literal reading of Scripture. And at 1998's Lambeth Conference, a worldwide gathering of Anglican bishops, George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury -- spiritual head of the Church of England, the original Anglican church -- caused a firestorm when he declared homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." Carey's statement, using virtually the same language that has caused such turmoil within the United Methodist Church, was approved as the Lambeth Resolution.
On the issue of same-sex unions, the church is similarly split. Some Episcopal dioceses do allow such commitment services, but the 1997 General Convention refused (by only one vote) to approve an official liturgy for those rites. The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, charged at that convention with finding ways to resolve the impasse over same-gender relationships, ultimately could not find middle ground; it recommended what's called "local option" -- leaving the matter up to the individual conscience of each diocese.
One Episcopalian group is working to achieve reconciliation within the church. At press time, the New Commandment Task Force had readied a number of proposals for consideration at the General Convention, proposals the task force contends will help bridge divides over scriptural authority, the nature of the Episcopal Church, and the responsibility of bishops and congregations to God and each other. Several dioceses also planned to challenge the Lambeth Resolution. Bishop Mary McLeod, who heads the Diocese of Vermont, has proposed an "emancipation proclamation" for gays and lesbians that declares heterosexual and homosexual people to be "equally capable of entering into life-long unions of love, mutual support, and fidelity." The Diocese of Minnesota will publicly announce its decision to guarantee that gays and lesbians have access to all church sacraments, including ordination and the blessing of relationships.
But if there is clearly tension within the Episcopal Church, Lind does not expect it to break the church in two. "The Anglican Communion is an agreement to be in relationship with each other," she says. "The Archbishop of Canterbury is an influential authority, but he's not the pope. As Episcopalians, we are called to work things out and strike a balance between justice and community."
The prospect that some in the Methodist and Presbyterian communities seek and leaders of those churches are working desperately to avoid -- schism, disunity, breaking up -- has a history as old as Christianity and is woven into the denominations now visiting these questions. Christianity itself was founded when the first followers of Jesus left Judaism behind. One of them, Peter, founded the Catholic Church. When that church became vastly wealthy and powerful, its authority was challenged in a series of uprisings that created a new pole of Christianity. The very meaning of Protestantism comes from the root of its name: protesting against the religious status quo for the right to consider different ideas, to reach different conclusions, to worship in different ways, to find authority in a completely different place.
Religious beliefs -- especially when tied to a powerful church-equals-state system that governs moral precepts, land ownership, taxation and commerce -- can lead to vast, bloody wars. Europe was stained red by all the fighting in the 16th and 17th centuries: bloody insurrections to stamp out the teachings of John Calvin in the Netherlands and France; the costly defeat of Catholic Spain's once invincible armada; the murder of inconvenient wives before England's King Henry VIII decided to break with Rome and establish the Church of England.
Decades and decades of war led to the establishment of U.S. Protestantism's mainline denominations during and after the Revolutionary War. Calvinism led to the Puritans; its ethic of hard work, order, democracy and a strict adherence to Scripture now lives on within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other, smaller Presbyterian denominations. The Episcopal Church is the American offshoot of the Anglican Church, created by Henry VIII. The autonomous Methodist Episcopal Church was constituted in 1784.
Infighting has remained a major and ongoing (if far less bloody) presence among U.S. denominations. People take their most deeply held beliefs seriously. And when they perceive their church to be straying from those beliefs, or when issues of the day create differences between personal conscience and denominational stance, the sense of betrayal or aloneness is strong -- so strong that the only options might be to fight or split.
Slavery was such an issue for some denominations, including the Methodists. Northern Methodists opposed the practice and those in the South embraced it. In 1844, the tension led to schism, leaving two churches: the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. (The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the African Methodist Episcopal `AME` Church were set up for people of African descent prior to the mainstream Methodist split; they still exist, using the same doctrine and system of governance as the current United Methodist Church.)
But, as the Methodists showed, schism can lead to reconciliation. In 1939, slavery had been long abolished and the two bodies, which both had assimilated into the general behaviors of American Protestantism, came together again (along with a smaller group, the Methodist Protestant Church) as the Methodist Church. As one body, however, there were still conflicts, governed by a General Conference and smaller regional conferences; one Central Conference was set up specifically for African-American Methodists who had not aligned with the all-black AME churches. That segregation ended in 1968, the same year that a union between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church led to the formation of the United Methodist Church.
Slavery divided the Presbyterian Church into two as well; reunification did not happen until 1983. "Historic Principles, Conscience, and Church Government," a report issued that year, says schism, though monumentally painful, is sometimes the only way to go. "It is perhaps fair to say that no knowledgeable member or officer of the church can agree with every requirement in the 'Form of Government,' and with every position which the church takes on every issue," the report says. "Scripture is our highest authority and no church governing body may bind conscience contrary to Scripture. It can, however, interpret Scripture and require that those who disagree either submit or withdraw peaceably. Because of the right to withdraw, the individual conscience cannot be bound by actions of the church."
In other words, schism can be a valuable protection for the Christian of conscience who cannot uphold his or her denomination's laws and does not agree with the institution's interpretation of Scripture. People of conscience can worship with those who share their beliefs and avoid those who, in their estimation, exclude and/or persecute those with whom they disagree. Methodists and Presbyterians are no strangers to schism; many in those faiths realize that sometimes the only option for everyone's best interests is to break apart. For some, this can lead to more honest worship, a more joyous relationship with fellow church members, and even spiritual salvation.
Still, when a person is deeply committed to a church or denomination, leaving it can cause great suffering. Such a move, for most dissenters, must be considered only as a last resort. Most choose to remain.
"I am called to be here," the openly gay Rev. Donald Stroud of Baltimore's First and Franklin Presbyterian Church says. "Presbyterians are bound together in our wrestling and struggling."
From his place within his church, Stroud -- minister of outreach and reconciliation for the pro-gay Presbyterian organization That All May Freely Serve -- takes issue with the conservative, fundamentalist stance that says the rules handed down in Scripture are absolute, a hard line he says leads to spiritual abuse. "It sets everyone in a straitjacket and turns the Bible into an idol," he says. "The text and ritual are not God -- they are witnesses to God, but they are not God. Loyalty to a Bible that grows stronger than loyalty to a living God destroys a being within the Christian faith."
Stroud notes that until 1978, there was no explicit Presbyterian prohibition against ordaining homosexuals. That developed only when the New York City Presbytery, faced with an openly gay ordination candidate, decided to ask the General Assembly for advice.
"They should have followed the model of `Episcopalian` Bishop Spong and gone ahead and acted with resolution and the realization that the decision was theirs," Stroud says. "Instead, they asked for definitive guidance, which set Presbyterians on the road to rules."
The May 11 plenary session of the UMC General Conference is under way. Petitions from the Faith and Order Committee are coming up; tensions are running high. Faith and Order, the 116 members of which deal with matters concerning denominational social principles, had the largest work load of any conference committee, and the most contentious, dealing with homosexuality and abortion. Earlier, amid highly charged debate, the panel gave thumbs-down to changing language in the Book of Discipline that declares homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching" and thumbs-up to retaining the ban on ordaining openly gay ministers. Another petition, which would have amended the book to affirm that "love, mutual support, personal commitment and shared fidelity" can be possible in same-gender relationships, also bit the dust.
Throughout the hall, pro-gay delegates and visitors are draped in the colorful clerical stoles of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered clergy who were stripped of their orders or refused ordination because they were honest about their sexual orientation. The garments are part of the Shower of Stoles project, a touring display that has become progressive American Christianity's version of the NAMES Project AIDS quilt.
As the first of the anti-gay measures hits the floor -- the one that would reaffirm that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" -- Faith and Order chairman Robert Hayes Jr., a well-regarded member of the conservative Texas Conference, speaks forcefully of the importance of upholding the absolute authority of Scripture and maintaining the prohibitions in the UMC Book of Discipline. The Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, senior minister of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., delivers a passionate minority report, urging delegates to change the language to note that Methodists are of many minds on the issue. Delegates offer testimony, pro and con. Presiding Bishop Dan Solomon, of the Louisiana Area, calls for a vote on Wogaman's minority report. Minutes later, the results appear: By a vote of 60.9 percent to 39.1 percent, Wogaman's measure is defeated. Homosexuality remains "incompatible."
Immediately, all hell breaks loose. A large contingent from AMAR Coalition member groups proceeds up the hall's center aisle and stands in place. Their stole-wearing compatriots in the balconies stand and sing "We Shall Overcome."
Bishop Solomon calls an immediate 20-minute recess. As some conservative delegates flee the hall, the conference becomes an impromptu revival meeting. An openly gay member of the Faith and Order committee hijacks the piano and begins to play, and progressive delegates sing hymns, alternately raucous and spiritual. Pro-gay bishops join in.
Suddenly, a woman appears on an ornamental arch connected to a balcony that hangs directly over the floor.
"I am not a Methodist, but I've been a lesbian all my life," she wails, "and I can't believe ... " Her words are no longer intelligible, but her anguished cries fill the hall. She begins bobbing to and fro atop the arch; it appears she might topple into the seats below. A man and a woman sitting near her rush forward and grab the sobbing woman just as she falls backward, away from the floor and toward the balcony. She is instantly rushed from the hall and taken to a local hospital.
"It was not a suicide attempt or some stunt," she says later that evening, after receiving a clean bill of health. "Really, I don't know what happened; I got so emotional. But I wouldn't put myself in danger. I thought I was perfectly safe up there. I was speaking out for my life, and I got kinda overemotional."
Recess over, AMAR spokesperson Randolph Miller tells the conference that the coalition is protesting nonviolently to show its dismay over the church's vote. He asks for permission for the group to remain in place, promising not to disrupt the proceedings. Solomon asks the delegates, who agree. Following a lunch break, Miller asks for the General Conference to declare a four-year moratorium on "negative language" related to homosexuality, including a freeze on church trials like those that punished Jimmy Creech and Gregory Dell. A motion is called and seconded on the floor, and a vote takes place. It fails, by a 2-to-1 margin. The protesters, many in tears, almost reluctantly move toward the convention-hall stage and onto the platform.
"We had a covenant," a visibly exasperated Solomon says.
"Yes, we broke covenant," Miller says, nodding his head slowly. "Because you have broken covenant with us."
The presiding bishop practically pleads with the demonstrators: "Sisters and brothers, please leave the platform area." When they refuse, Solomon makes a motion with his hands. "I bury my head in prayer," he says, a dejected look on his face, "because I cannot bear to witness what is about to occur."
At that moment, to cries of "No!" and "Shame!," police officers walk onto the stage and lead the singing protesters -- among whom is bishop C. Joseph Sprague of Chicago, who'd been arrested with Soulforce demonstrators the previous day -- to vans outside the convention hall, which will take them to jail. They ultimately plead not guilty or no contest to misdemeanor charges of disrupting a lawful meeting and are duly convicted and fined.
In the hall, another recess is called, and this time there is no impromptu revival meeting. Instead, there is bedlam. All along the convention floor and throughout the balconies, people on both sides of the debate are weeping and sobbing. Two elderly delegates seated in a conservative section of the floor slap high-fives. A steady stream of liberal delegates exit the hall in protest, singing, "We are leaving in the light of God." The General Conference ultimately goes along with all of Faith and Order's recommendations and votes down each petition to change or moderate the church's stance on homosexuality.
At a press conference, Bishop Robert Morgan of the Louisville Area still looks a bit worse for wear. "Regardless of one's position on the subject, you have pain when you see anyone in the family hurting," he says. "There's no rejoicing in that."
Bishop Kenneth Carder of the Nashville Area moves to dissuade anyone thinking of leaving the UMC by referring to the words of Methodism's spiritual forefather, the 18th-century Anglican priest John Wesley. "Wesley said schism is a failure to love," he says. "Today there is a deep sadness. Efforts must be made to be hospitable. The pain is real and obvious, and that affects individuals and churches in this midst of this struggle."
But the Rev. Maxie Dunham of Wilmore, Ky., has no apologies. "The votes were in keeping with the historic Christian faith," he says. "We shouldn't change anything in our mission and ministry."
Rev. Wogaman says he suffers "keen disappointment" but is not defeated: "The issues are not closed today; the mind of the church is open." Asked what advice he would give gay, lesbian or bisexual Methodists who feel called to ordained ministry, Wogaman frowns. After a moment, he shrugs his shoulders and says four words that sound appropriate coming from the pastor of President Clinton's church: "Don't ask, don't tell."
Asked the same question, Dunham also pauses before answering. He looks up finally, his face blank, and says, "Well, they can always help out with Sunday school. That's ministry."
The fight over homosexuality will continue in the United Methodist Church until the Book of Discipline is changed or someone gives up. Is schism likely? No one can say for sure. This denomination has survived separations and divisions before. Whether it will survive a growing fundamentalist Christian population is another story. The United Methodist News Service projects that, with expected population shifts, the 2004 General Conference could see more delegates from the more conservative South and West.
Fresh from an overnight stint in an Orlando jail after protests at the mid-June Southern Baptist Convention gathering, Soulforce leader Mel White looked ahead to both the Presbyterian and Episcopal conventions, along with the November Catholic Bishops Conference in Washington, D.C. "We won't stop," he says, "until God's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered children are welcome in Her churches."
Meanwhile, charges are pending against the UMC's Sacramento 68. Conservative bishops talk about holding Bishop Sprague accountable for his statements during the General Conference, and for ending up in jail not once but twice. Organizations on both sides of the issue are redoubling their efforts. Secretly gay and bisexual clergy are moving deeper into their closets; others are turning away from a church they believe has abandoned them. Everywhere, Methodists are crossing their fingers, offering prayers, hoping for unity and resting up for the next battle.
As the United Methodist Church General Conference comes to an end, weary delegates display little joy. Few are willing to answer questions about unity or their denomination's future. They just want to get home.
Sarah Barton, a tall, elegant, conservative Californian whose downcast eyes reveal her fatigue, is one of the few willing to share some thoughts. "We are a dysfunctional family, a troubled household," she says. Barton says that while she does not support changing church doctrine, she values the contributions gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people make to the UMC. "I believe we all want to stay together, and most of us will work like blazes to try and make it work, but the work is unbelievably hard."
She lifts her cream-colored tote bag, which bears the logo and slogan of the 2000 General Conference. "We who are many are one body. One broken body," she says, with a laugh that sounds anything but happy. "What will happen? I suppose time will tell."