Controversial issues have been brought to open discussion as the Methodist Conference 2005 approaches its end. The Conference on Wednesday at the Riviera Centre, Torquay, saw some 384 representatives from Methodist churches across the UK, vote on a major report on human sexuality entitled "Pilgrimage of Faith", which was unanimously approved.
The "Pilgrimage of Faith" report concluded the viewpoint of the Church on human sexuality in six points and was first adopted at the 1993 Methodist Conference at Derby. However, Methodists have called for a review in 2003 in the light of the increasingly liberal social attitude towards homosexuality or other sexuality issues.
The "Pilgrimage of Faith" 2005 report endorsed yesterday was the fruit of a two-year consultation which involved the contribution of over 160 churches, groups and individuals in the Methodist tradition.
It particularly gives an account of the discussion "on how to respond to requests to conduct prayers or services of blessing for same-sex couples, particularly in the light of recent legislation on civil partnerships." It is said to be the most in-depth look at human sexuality undertaken by the Church since 1993.
Starting on 5th December 2005, based on the Civil Partnership Bill passed by the British Parliament last year, gay couples will be allowed to form legally binding partnerships and enjoy tax and pension rights similar to that of married heterosexual couples. Churches are therefore deeply concerned.
The Methodist Church's conference decided yesterday to research guidelines, which could be offered to ministers on how to respond to requests to conduct prayers or services for blessing same-sex couples. There is a chance that Methodists will become the first mainstream Church in Britain to offer blessing services to same-sex couples.
However, while the Church is under the risk of being rebuked by other mainstream churches, the Methodist Church insisted that the guidelines would continue to uphold the Church's teaching that sex should be restricted to heterosexual marriage.
The Convener of the Faith and Order Committee, the Rev Jonathan Kerry, said to the Times newspaper, that the guidance would be published by the autumn, in time for the introduction of the legislation later in the year.
According to the Methodist Church official release, the debate at the Conference also reflected the diversity of opinion within the Church, whilst still remaining respectful and open. Compared to its close ecumenical partner, the Church of England which has been painfully divided over the homosexuality debate, the Methodist Church appears to be more ready to embrace different people.
The Times newspaper reported that many speakers affirmed the positive contribution of gay people, including in church offices over recent years but only one speaker warned that the church was moving away from its Biblical basis.
The Revd Jonathan Kerry, Coordinating Secretary for Worship and Learning, oversaw the production of the report, and he said, "there is clearly still a very wide range of opinion within the Methodist Church on this issue. But thanks to the positive approach people have taken to discussing this Pilgrimage of Faith, we continue to share our views without conversations becoming arguments."
Kerry added, "this is not the end of this Pilgrimage. We will keep the process going, and revisit it at future Conferences. The evidence gathered this time makes it clear that peoples views do change with time."
"The challenge for us as a Church is to keep discussing the small number of areas where we disagree, while celebrating and drawing strength from the many areas where we do agree. As a Church we want to be outward looking and active in doing Gods work in the world, whilst still finding time honestly to discuss difficult areas like this," he said.
The actions resulting from the report are expected to influence the future of the ecumenical relationship with the Anglican Church.
The Church of England and the Methodists signed a "covenant" agreement in 2004 and the two churches are currrently moving slowly towards unity. While many say that the Anglicans have seemingly tended to adopt an increasing liberal stance over the sexuality issues, the Methodists can align more closely with the Anglicans as it agrees on the same values.