Debate on ordination of gays heated but respectful

Tuesday, May 4, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:42 a.m. CDT, Saturday, June 28, 2008

As the 2004 United Methodist General Conference enters its final week, it has become almost clear that the controversial church law that prohibits the ordination of practicing gays will be intact for at least four more years.

This legislative assembly — embroiled in controversy since it began on April 27 — has drawn the Rev. Jim Bryan of Missouri United Methodist Church, lay member Carol Smith of Fairview United Methodist Church and about 1,000 other delegates from around the world to Pittsburgh for impassioned discussion about a law that some consider to be cruel and prejudicial and that others believe upholds biblical principals.

Emotions ran particularly high on Friday as the Faith and Order Committee, where both Bryan and Smith serve, spent about 12 hours hearing many of its 90 members openly voice their opinions on petitions that would rewrite church law in the Book of Discipline, Bryan said.

The book is a compilation of church laws, polity and processes that currently states, “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as ministers or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.”

Bryan spoke strongly against this law because he said it unfairly excludes gays and lesbians from the church and is reminiscent of the awful days hundreds of years ago when the church supported slavery. However, Bryan was in the minority opinion, and the committee voted to uphold the law.

Although the plenary — the entire body of delegates — will further discuss this heated issue later this week, Bryan said it is certain that the petition to ordain openly gay ministers will fail, as it has for the past 28 years.

Even though this is clearly a charged and tense time, “voices were not raised, there was no name calling … only respect,” said Bryan.

But Bryan said he was offended by certain delegates’ motion to have the church’s highest judicial body re-examine the much-disputed acquittal of an openly gay Methodist minister, the Rev. Karen Dammann from Washington state, on March 20.

“They were using the judicial process to push their own agenda,” Bryan said.

On Saturday, by a 6-to-3 vote, the Judicial Council ruled that current church law, which prohibits openly gay ministers, is in direct opposition to Dammann’s acquittal, and the council is consequently determining the effect this decision will have on Dammann’s case.

This ruling will not prevent the delegates from revising current church law to allow for the ordination of practicing gays, said the Rev. Nick Campbell of Fairview United Methodist, “All that happened with the Judicial Review was clarification (of old law), not the making of new law.”

Although Campbell, like Bryan, supports amending the Book of Discipline to include openly gay ministers, he said his congregation has opinions that fall across the spectrum.

The Episcopal Church wrestled with these same issues last August, although at their General Assembly the liberal voice, not the conservative voice, won out as church law was revised to allow practicing gays to serve in the ministry.

Bryan firmly said he believes that one day the United Methodist Church will follow in the Episcopal Church’s footsteps, and “our heart will truly be opened, and we will finally be an inclusive church.”

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