Methodists Close Meeting; No Action on Transgender Issues

Delegates representing the 11.5-million member United Methodist Church (UMC) closed on Friday a 10-day meeting that was relatively calm despite contentious issues.

The General Conference, which meets every four years, was a "more unified" meeting than the previous one – which was marked by fiery debates and the arrests of protestors over the church's gay policies – according to Florida Bishop Timothy Whitaker.

"There are still very divisive issues that confront us, and they got our attention and raised anxieties, but the controversy occurred not in a vacuum but in the context of a constructive agenda," Whitaker said, according to The Ledger.

On Wednesday, United Methodists engaged in an emotional yet still tame debate over homosexuality. Delegates voted 501-417 to reject changes to the church's current stance that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Many praised the church's decision to be clear on their stance on sexuality and faithful to biblical teaching.

Meanwhile, advocates for the full participation of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in the church clothed themselves in black and declared the United Methodist Church's policies on homosexuality "sinful" and that "sexuality is a gift from God."

In a compromise between the General Conference, the church's top governing body, the Council of Bishops and leaders of groups supporting homosexuality, a group of gay advocates was allowed to hold a demonstration in front of the nearly 1,000 UMC delegates, draping a communion table in black.

"This was a symbolic act of our praying for the whole body. It was not intended to be a protest. It was a sign of leading a community in prayer," said Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the Council of Bishops. "It was to say that these are people, we are people and we are all trying to be disciples of Christ."

Still, more than 200 Methodists attended a lesbian couple's commitment ceremony Friday in defiance of the conference's homosexuality vote. No clergy member presided over the ceremony.

The General Conference did not address the issue of transgenderism, which the denomination's law book says nothing about. Some had proposed this year resolutions that would bar transgender persons from the pulpit. But the issue was not brought up for debate by the delegates and the proposals were instead defeated in smaller legislative committees.

One of the resolutions stated that transgenderism denies "the sacred integrity of God's good creation."

The controversial issue was not high on the agenda for the quadrennial conference since transgenderism affects just a small percentage of the church, said the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, who chairs the church's conservative renewal and reform coalition.

"I think it got overshadowed by all the other controversial issues," he said, according to Religion News Service.

Also, the issue is fairly new to the denomination.

The relative lack of knowledge about transgenderism contributed to the church's failure to take much action on the issue, Lambrecht added.

"It's a fairly new thing. We've been studying homosexuality for 35 years, but we've not really looked at transgenderism," he said.

The Rev. Drew Phoenix, pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church in Baltimore, underwent surgery and hormone therapy to transition from female to male. Phoenix was allowed last year by the denomination's highest council to continue pastoring the church. The church's failure to take any action on the issue most likely will allow Phoenix to remain in the pulpit.

In other actions, the General Conference adopted resolutions calling for the "full protection of all workers, which includes the opportunity to gain legal status for all migrants." The church also urges U.S. lawmakers to ensure that immigrant laws do not rip apart families.

The delegates rejected attempts to have the denomination endorse divestment from Israel as a way of addressing the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The conference also revised the denomination's mission statement to now read, "The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."