Institute on Religion and Democracy
The directors of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society are asking the General Conference to delete the Discipline's opposition to homosexual practice. Complying with a plea from Bishop Melvin Talbert of the California/Nevada Conference, the directors voted by a strong margin in favor of liberalizing the church's stance towards homosexuality.
Their proposal, ratified at the Board's Spring meeting in Washington, DC, will go before the General Conference in 2000. Talbert, as chairman of the Board's human welfare work area, presented his committee's recommendation to delete the Discipline's current language in paragraph 71F, which declares the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching."
But director David Livingston, a student at St. Paul's School of Theology in Kansas City, proposed accepting the deletion while also adding the words: "...faithful Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching, ..." This substitute for Talbert's original proposal passed 19-17.
With Talbert's support, the full Board then voted 28 to 8 to submit this proposal to General Conference. Although over 60 directors, including six bishops, serve on the Board, fewer than 40 directors were present for the vote.
Bishop Marshall Meadors of Mississippi was among the 8 who voted against liberalizing the church's stance towards homosexuality. Bishop Charles Wesley Jordan of Iowa presided over the meeting and did not vote. The other bishops did not appear to be present.
Talbert told his fellow directors that he opposes the church's current sexuality position because of his own experiences with "gays and lesbians." Recalling that United Methodism first formalized its disapproval of homosexual practice in 1972, he said the stance has been a "serious burden" to the church ever since.
Professing that he too had once carried "stereotypes" regarding homosexuals, Talbert said he changed his position over 25 years ago when he headed United Methodism's Board of Discipleship.
"There is too much for us to learn yet," said Talbert. "Let's leave ourselves open and leave the judgement to God. There is so much we don't know about sexual expression in the lives of people."
Henry Shelton III, a director from Memphis, spoke against Talbert's proposal. "It's hard to disagree with a great preacher," he said. "It's hard to do so when I know how this Board will vote...But we have to go by what the Scriptures tell us." Shelton said the church must emphasize a concept of family centered upon marriage between men and women.
Livingston, when submitting his proposed language for the resolution, argued there is no consensus about the morality of homosexual practice among United Methodists. "There is very little I can say is true," said Livingston. Other than declaring belief in Jesus Christ, "definite statements are inappropriate," he affirmed.
A pastor from Mississippi disagreed with Livingston and Talbert. "I've had members leave the church because they say our church says nothing," said director Joe Willie May of Jackson. "We need profound foundations for where the church stands." May mentioned he had been in contact with a predominantly black congregation in Mississippi that wanted to withdraw from United Methodism because it has become "wishy-washy."
Director C.A. Dillon of Raleigh, North Carolina agreed with May. "This church is the church of Jesus Christ, not mine or yours," said Dillon. "If we say it [homosexual practice] is okay, we're going against His Word."
It has become a tradition for the Board to propose deleting the Discipline's language opposing homosexual practice before General Conference. Typically the Church and Society committee of General Conference decides in favor of the resolution, which is then rejected by the full General Conference by a sizeable margin.
The General Board of Church and Society's consistent support for liberalizing the church's position on sexuality has helped to persuade many United Methodists that the Board is significantly out of step with mainstream United Methodism.