Well, today was the day that most of us dread: the first set of votes came up on the homosexuality issue. All potential legislation starts in one of 13 legislative committees. One of those committees is called “Church and Society.” (Actually, there are two such committees, C and S 1 and C and S 2.) Give me a minute to explain a bit of the procedure General Conference uses to do its business. If a significant number of people on a legislative committee do not agree with a particular proposal passed in committee (i.e. if they lost the vote), then they can write a “minority report” which then is read in the plenary session along with the majority report. The committee chair reads the majority report, then the bishop says, “There is a minority report,” and the representative of the makers of the minority report reads it. So, the people have a choice.
Then comes a time for making amendments to both minority and majority reports. Because homosexual practice is so contested in our church, lots of amendments are made to the reports, frankly, incrementally, subtly to gut the meaning of whichever proposal the amender doesn’t like. Once the amendments are made, then, people can make speeches in support of or against the report. A maximum of three speeches for and three against are allowed. Then comes the vote.
Now to the issue at hand. The committee had voted to remove the “incompatibility” language from the Social Principles statement in the Book of Discipline regarding “the practice of homosexuality,” which now states that such practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Removing the “incompatibility language” and replacing it with a statement that our church is divided on the matter was, in sum, the majority report proposal.
The minority report proposal asked for the church to maintain its current position, recognizing and upholding the scriptural teaching against homosexual practice. To make a long story short, by a very narrow margin, the Conference voted to replace the majority report with the minority report, then voting to adopt it as the majority report. By a margin of 55% to 45%, it passed. So, the official stance of The United Methodist Church stays the same as it has been on the question of homosexual practice, but the margin of support was very close. We look like a divided church.
We continue to have these arguments at great cost to the Body of Christ as it is expressed in The United Methodist Church. There is simply no way to have a productive dialogue on the floor of a session of General Conference. The purpose of General Conference is to pass legislation and the way we do so is through a democratic process that culminates in votes. It’s up or down.
I know that this is how politics works and I guess, most of the time, I’m quite OK with it working this way. But when I see the emotion permeating this particular vote; when I watch people weep after the vote because, once again, they feel that the church has spurned them or someone they love, I think to myself, “There has to be a better way to deal with this issue.”
We will never be able to deal appropriately with homosexual practice without also facing the other practices clearly condemned by scripture, namely adultery and divorce. Those of us who adhere to the traditional view on homosexual practice look like hypocrites when we say nothing about heterosexual sin. And the floor of General Conference is not the place to deal with that one either.
Let me end on a more positive note. The bishops who have been presiding have had an enormously difficult job. Our Bishop Scott Jones did a great job last night. Today, during this most contentious of times, Bishop Timothy Whitaker of Florida presided with grace and gentleness.
I go to bed with 1 Peter 4:17 on my mind, “For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God…”