Institute on Religion and Democracy
May 10, 2000
After a morning in which "Soulforce" pro-homosexuality demonstrators performed acts of civil disobedience, several United Methodist bishops spoke at a press conference to respond. They were in Cleveland for their denomination's General Conference, in which sexuality topics are cause for debate. None of the bishops defended the church's current opposition to homosexuality. Instead they spoke only about their obligation to uphold church law.
Bishops Ken Carder of Nashville, Woodie White of Indianapolis and Mary Ann Swenson talked to reporters assembled at the Cleveland Convention Center, where the General Conference is convened. Swenson had earlier attended the Soulforce demonstration outside the convention center, although she declined to be arrested along with Bishop Joe Sprague of Chicago.
"My own learning in [the ways of] non-violence to change our society is progressive," Swenson explained about her involvement. "I wanted to push for change." She defended Sprague's civil disobedience. "I do think it's appropriate that Bishop Sprague was arrested. He's being jailed on behalf of the Gospel."
The Soulforce demonstrators had hoped to focus attention on the pro-homosexuality cause and even to shut down the proceedings of the conference with hundreds if not thousands of demonstrators. But apparently only a few hundred supporters appeared for the display of force, and their performance ended relatively quickly, with almost no disruption to the conference proceedings. Fewer than 200 were arrested.
Carder admitted that the conference delegates were "experiencing a gamut of emotions" in response to the demonstration and the debate over homosexuality. But he tried to minimize the effects of the controversy. "Our church continues to struggle. We are united in our commitment to Jesus Christ." Carder did admit the divisions within the Council of Bishops by acknowledging the "diversity" and "differences as to doctrine" among them.
Expressing hope that the debates over homosexuality may ultimately foster greater strength for the church, Carder still admitted that the controversy ultimately relates to the authority of Scriptures and the nature of God.
Neither Carder nor White would describe their own personal views regarding the church's stance on homosexuality, saying to do so would be inappropriate during the General Conference. Although Swenson echoed their statements, her demonstrating with Soulforce had already answered the question. As if to remove any further doubt, she told the press conference that "her most moving moment" of the General Conference so far was serving communion at an earlier demonstration by Reconciling Congregations, another pro-homosexuality group. She called it a "holy experience."
"I hope we're open to gifts from all God's people," Swenson further explained. "We shouldn't deny gifts because of someone's [sexual] orientation." When asked what her response would be if one her pastors conducted a same-sex union, she said, "I don't know what I would do," adding, "I want pastors to have freedom of conscience." She grudgingly admitted her obligation to uphold church policies.
White responded to the same question, explaining he would have no alternative but to enforce the church's Discipline. Carder also said he was bound to abide by the decisions of General Conference and the judicial process within the church. He stressed that the bishops do not make church law, but play an "interpretative and prophetic role." He pointed out that "prophetic witness," which may include violations of church or civil law, have consequences.
Carder also remarked that "irresponsible heterosexual behavior" was doing great damage to the church. And he pointed to issues that he believes unite the church, such as ministries to children and confronting the "holocaust" among poor people. White tried to reinforce Carder's point by citing continued difficulties with racism.
White also pointed to "stands of a positive nature" that the church has adopted on homosexuality, which includes "civil rights" for homosexuals, the right to church membership, and a church policy that condemns the practice of homosexuality but not the "orientation." The United Methodist Church prohibits the ordination of practicing homosexuals and declares homosexual practice to be "incompatible with Christian teaching."
Swenson shared her pain over counter-demonstrations in Cleveland by an oddball but media-savvy Kansas minister, Fred Phelps, who flies with family members all over the country to demonstrate with placards proclaiming "God hates fags." Phelps and a small number of his followers shouted at the Soulforce marchers outside the Cleveland Convention Center. Swenson likened the experience to Jesus' agonizing walk down the Via de la Rosa, during which He endured the angry epithets of a Jerusalem mob before his crucifixion.