United (for now) Methodists and the same-sex debate

Amid talk of a possible schism over homosexuality, the United Methodist Church is back in the news.

On the heels of an exceedingly positive profile of Methodist gay-rights advocate Frank Schaefer, the Washington Post reported this weekend:

Hundreds of American pastors from the United Methodist Church have signed a proposal released Friday that aims to keep the global denomination of 12.5 million members from splitting over the issue of homosexuality.

It offers churches and regional bodies the option to make up their own minds on issues like affirming gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

The proposal, titled “A Way Forward,” includes some prominent pastors, including Adam Hamilton, who leads an 18,000-member church in Kansas and delivered the sermon at President Obama’s 2013 inaugural service, and David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

The gist of the proposal, as described by the Post:

“The Church leaders that offer this proposal believe that the current debate is virtually irresolvable if left to the choices that the General Conference has been faced with recently. These leaders believe division would be shortsighted, costly, detrimental to ALL local congregations, and out of step with God’s will,” Friday’s statement read.

“One side believes the ‘practice of homosexuality’ is incompatible with Christian teaching. That is what’s written into the UMC Book of Discipline. The other side believes that scriptures related to homosexuality reflect the values of the time period in which scriptures were written more than the timeless will of God.”

The response from those opposed to budging on homosexuality? More from the Post:

It wasn’t possible to get immediate comment from the leaders of the traditional wing of the church, but the proposal came a few weeks after a group of conservative pastors issued a call of their own for “a way forward” that sounded more like a request to split.

It wasn't possible? Seriously, what does that mean? Would the traditional leaders not answer their phones? Did the Post get the story too close to deadline? (But give the Post credit for including after that paragraph the most recent statements from the denomination's traditional wing.)

In most of the reporting on debates such as this, you have one side pushing for something — such as compromise on the issue of homosexuality — and another side opposing it. To a large extent, that's the nature of news. At the same time, these debates — in real life — often are marked by as much gray as black and white.

With that in my mind, I found a Florida Today story this weekend refreshing in that it reflected the complexity of the discussion among many Methodists:

The Rev. John Hill would rather talk about anything else: Jesus, feeding the poor, helping someone in need.

But in recent weeks, Hill and other United Methodist pastors across the Space Coast and the nation are hearing more challenging conversations re-igniting heated passions over the future of his denomination.

"It's distressing to me that we're still focusing on minor issues, same-sex, homosexuality," said Hill, senior pastor of the 2,700-member Suntree United Methodist Church in Melbourne, one of the largest Methodist congregations on the Space Coast.

Hill is also one of several hundred Methodist pastors who signed a statement Friday calling for the church to remain unified and respectful of differences over the issue.

"Others may feel different, but the real issues that Jesus called us to confront are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and not necessarily this issue. It's maybe important but not essential."

"What I signed calls for us to stay united and seeks to allow for more individuality among the congregations," he said.

This big chunk of the story allows for a variety of nuanced perspectives:

Today, the Book of Discipline says homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching in the denomination, a guideline that for now forbids weddings or ceremonies celebrating same-sex unions. The Rev. Joe Jursa of Satellite Beach United Methodist Church, says that regardless of the discussion, he simply wants to focus on nurturing his congregation spiritually.

"My bottom line is that the Book of Discipline has not changed in the 38 years I've been doing this, and I'm pretty comfortable with where it is," he said. "You do have people who get involved with politics or who have their own ideas. I'm worrying more about marrying and burying my folks, not people with strange ideas."

Others agree. A new poll shows that more than 90 percent of the denomination's members believe the church should not split over questions or concerns about human sexuality, according to the survey conducted by the Greensboro, N.C.-based Corporate Research and Research Now of Dallas. Another 63 percent of those surveyed said the controversy over same-sex marriage was diverting the church from other more important issues including poverty, falling membership and engaging youth.

Members like Mac McInnis, 76-year-old lifelong Methodist who leads the Saturday morning Bible study sessions at St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Indialantic, feels that whatever same-sex couples "do out of the church, I wouldn't have a problem with." But the self-described conservative said that he would not approve of the church sanctioning or performing wedding vows for such couples.

"If they had a ceremony in the church, I wouldn't go for it. I don't believe in same-sex marriage. If the church did that, then I'm not sure I would want to stay. Marriage is between a man and a woman. Maybe it's my upbringing, but that's what I believe."

Look for more coverage nationally as the debate proceeds.

As much as some might like to focus on other issues, this one doesn't seem likely to go away.

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