Institute on Religion and Democracy
September 30, 1999
Although a majority clearly favored acceptance of same-sex unions, the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW) failed to reach "consensus" for any specific proposal to change the church's teaching on marriage and sexuality.
COSROW members voted 17 to 14 in favor of a petition to next year's General Conference that would have deleted the United Methodist Discipline's prohibition against same-sex unions.
Under COSROW's "consensus" mode of operating, only three members are needed to defeat any proposed legislation. Each discussion over a petition was preceded by a time of informal "discernment" discussion and prayer. Thirty-two of COSROW's 43 members were present.
A second petition proposed to allow individual clergy and church administrative boards to decide for or against celebrating same-sex unions. Twenty members agreed with this petition, but 12 voted "no," effectively defeating it.
A third petition sought to amend the United Methodist Church's constitution to include "sexual orientation" as a protected class equal to race, gender, national origin and disability. Twenty-one members voted "yes," but seven were opposed, so it was also defeated.
The defeat of this petition especially frustrated several COSROW members, who wondered how COSROW could work against "discrimination" if unwilling to advocate on behalf of sexual minorities. Some COSROW members seemed surprised that so many of their number opposed the petitions regarding homosexuality.
A supporter of the pro-homosexuality petitions successfully urged that the votes be conducted secretly, presumably to hide "yes" votes from the two reporters present for the meeting. But the secret ballot, if anything, seems to have emboldened some COSROW members to resist the majority and vote "no."
Only three COSROW members openly spoke against the petitions. The Rev. Martha Forrest, an episcopal nominee from the North Georgia Conference, explained her opposition to the petitions by saying she did not want the church to "split" over the issue. She also questioned the "agenda" behind the petition that would have added "sexual orientation" to the church constitution.
Karl Baumgardner, an attorney from Amarillo, also explained his opposition to the "sexual orientation" petition. "You're supposed to confess your sins in Jesus Christ," he said. "In my opinion homosexual acts are a sin. When you add that language you're starting down a slippery slope." Baumgardner was apprehensive that the addition ultimately would compel churches to accept unrepentant homosexuals not only as church members but also as employees and ordained clergy.
Phyllis Ferguson, a laywoman from Seattle, emphatically spoke against these and other petitions that spoke of "full inclusion," as she expressed apprehension about the buzz words employed by pro-homosexuality caucus groups.
A clear majority of speakers favored the petitions. One clergy member admitted he had conducted same-sex unions in the past. He compared the practice of homosexuality to racial and ethnic differences.
Philip Fenn, a clergyman from Norman, Oklahoma, said the petition that would allow local churches to make up their own minds about conducting same-sex unions was "more important than anything else" before COSROW. "I'm not sure what's right on this issue," he said. "I have great pause about the authority of Scripture." He identified this petition as a "feeling issue" involving "compassion and acceptance."
Gail Murphy-Geiss, a clergy member from Denver, disagreed with Fenn on that petition, which she feared would lead to "congregationalism." But she supported other pro-homosexuality petitions. The church has an "embarrassing history of marginalizing people," Murphy-Geiss remarked. She cited blacks, Native Americans, women and divorced persons as victims. "Divorce is life giving for many people," she observed. "We're still racists and sexists. We're still controlled by married, heterosexual, white men."
Early in this COSROW meeting, as part of an informal community-building exercise, the members were asked to place themselves in the room based on their agreement with various statements that were read about the church. One statement said the church was so hopelessly rooted in "patriarchy" (i.e. male domination) that it should be abandoned altogether to make way for a new more egalitarian organization. A substantial minority moved to the left side of the room to signify their agreement. But most stood in the middle to indicate only partial agreement. Other questions posed to the members were less weighty, involving favorite food and sports.
"We believe in reformation," Bishop Janice Huie of Arkansas remarked as she placed herself in the middle in response to the "patriarchy" question. Huie did not speak to the petitions regarding homosexuality, except to observe that the petition allowing local churches and clergy to decide over same-sex unions might violate the church's constitution. The other episcopal member of COSROW, Michael Coyner of North Dakota, was not present for the meeting.
Without debate, COSROW did approve a compromise statement for its own use that called for ministry to and the full participation of "gays and lesbians," whom it identified as "marginalized persons."
The featured worship leader at the start of COSROW's meeting was the Rev. Janet Wolf, an outspoken advocate of same-sex unions. She pastors a "reconciling" congregation near Nashville. In her sermon she told of her struggle to gain ordination when the Board of Ordained Ministry was troubled by her stance on "sexual identity." She seemed to imply that a majority of United Methodists disagreed with COSROW when she observed that, "Most folks hope this commission will be silent." COSROW will ignore that hope, she optimistically opined.
COSROW did succeed in approving petitions and resolutions calling for civility in church debates, opposition to sexual harassment, and parity (50-50) in the number of women serving in church leadership rolls. COSROW is the United Methodist agency charged with advocating on behalf of the full inclusion of women in the church's ministry.