Official Methodist Retreat Center Under Fire for Pro-Gay Conference

A pro-homosexual conference planned for the Labor Day Weekend at an official United Methodist Church conference center is stirring controversy within the 8-million-member denomination.

Lake Junaluska, the official retreat center for the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, will host the “Hearts on Fire” conference from Sept 2-5, despite protest from traditional Methodists.

“Hearts on Fire,” sponsored by the Reconciling Ministries Network, features a wide range of speakers who support a change in the church’s laws prohibiting the ordination of sexually active homosexual ministers. Conservatives from Good News United Methodist and the Institute of Religion and Democracy say the conference would violate the retreat center’s policy to rent its facilities only to groups that share the mission of the UMC.

"The conference will not just be advocating for change in the church's standards; it will include large doses of preaching and teaching which are in direct opposition to the Scriptural norm and to the church's standards,” said the Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president and publisher of Good News Magazine. “That should not happen at a United Methodist conference center."

Mark Tooley, director of UMAction, part of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, agreed that “It seems highly inappropriate to rent those facilities for a rally for same-sex 'marriage,' homosexual clergy, and various exotic forms of sexual expression.”

Last year, the United Methodist Church upheld its ban on “self-affirming homosexual ministers” during its quadrennial gathering. However, debates over the issues ensued with pro-gay groups publicly announcing their intention to stay in the denomination until it changes its policies. These differences nearly led to an official schism in the church with many supporting the idea of an “amicable separation” between conservative and liberal Methodists

The denomination is still together and its policies in place. But the homosexuality debate continues to consume much of the church’s energy and interest. In October, for example, the church’s highest court will hear the case of Irene Beth Stroud, a lesbian minister who was put on trial for publicly announcing that she lives in a sexually active relationship with her female partner.

Stroud was defrocked last December for violating Methodist policy, but she won an appeal earlier this year on technical grounds. She is one of the speakers who will be featured at the “Hearts on Fire” conference.

Other controversial speakers and participants of the conference include seven bishops: Susan Morrison, Melvin Talbert, Joseph Sprague, Sally Dyck, John Schol, Minerva Carcano and Bishop Richard Wilke.

Heidinger expressed concern about the bishops’ support and noted that bishops “are responsible for carrying into effect the rules, regulations, and responsibilities prescribed and enjoined by the General Conference.”

“They are not to be dissenters to the church’s doctrine or moral teachings,” he said.

Other speakers will include Karen Oliveto, who drew fire for publicly blessing same-sex unions, and Erin Swenson, a male Presbyterian minister who had a sex-change operation and now lives as a female.

Jimmy Carr, Lake Junaluska’s executive director who made the decision to rent the facility to Reconciling Ministries, said he treated the request the same as any other from all of the UMC-related groups.

The retreat center "researched their request and found RMN to be an affiliated caucus of the United Methodist Church," he said. Reconciling Ministries, Good News and UM Action are unofficial United Methodist groups.

The IRD's Web site and Good News magazine have urged supporters to contact Carr and express their feelings by sharing “polite and respectful” comments. Some critics have also urged boycotting the Retreat Center, withholding funds for its operating budget, or staging demonstrations outside the main gates.

Conservatives largely believe that United Methodists should use their time to heal all those suffering from sexual brokenness by bringing them to Christ, rather than working for the acceptance of homosexual behavior. A traditional United Methodist group that supports such an approach to homosexuality will also be hosting an event at Lake Junaluska that week.

Transforming Congregation, a ministry network that promotes traditional teachings on sexuality, will host their Prayer Breakfast one day before the Hearts on Fire Conference. The Prayer Breakfast will feature presentations by “men and women who have found freedom from homosexuality and transgender confusion,” according to Good News.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline affirms God's love for homosexuals but calls homosexual practice "incompatible with Christian teaching." Human rights for gays are supported in the church's Social Principles, but the church denies ordination to practicing homosexuals, refuses funding for pro-homosexuality advocacy, forbids same-sex unions, supports civil laws defining marriage as a union between man and woman, and declares that "sexual relations are only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond."