Hundreds of United Methodists have begun looking over some 1,500 petitions that have been proposed by those seeking change in church policies and structures, among other things, during the church's quadrennial gathering.
Much of the media spotlight, however, has fallen on two submitted petitions aimed at changing the United Methodist Church's current position on homosexuality. The church body holds that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
One petition would state that homosexuality is a subject about which Christians disagree and the other would define marriage as the union of two loving adults.
To support gay and transgender church members, young Methodists from the Mosaic Youth Network are holding a 24-hour "drumming and rally," which began Friday at noon, outside the Fort Worth Conference Center in Texas, where the United Methodist General Conference is taking place. Recent General Conferences have seen protests by gay-rights advocates, some of whom were arrested for disrupting proceedings.
Debates on whether gay Christians can be ordained as clergy have gone on for decades in the denomination and most recently, controversy has erupted over transgendered persons.
The Rev. Drew Phoenix, pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church in Baltimore, sparked debate when the transgender minister was allowed last year to remain pastor of the church. Phoenix, who previously led the church as the Rev. Ann Gordon, underwent surgery and hormone therapy to become male.
The ruling was made by the United Methodist Church's highest council, affirming a 2006 decision to reappoint Phoenix as pastor. The court agreed that while the denomination bars self-avowed practicing gay clergy from ordination and does not support gay unions, the United Methodist Book of Discipline says nothing about gender change.
The Rev. Karen Booth, executive director of Transforming Congregations, an organization she says ministers to "sexually confused, sinful and broken people," believes transgender people exhibit a "deep, psychological conflict," according to the United Methodist News Service.
While the church should minister to them, she says, leadership should not be an option.
"We recognize that there are, in fact, people who are unfortunately born with a chromosomal blueprint that is ambiguous. That is a valid medical condition that needs to be addressed," she said, as reported by UMNS. "Most of what we see is more of a psychological state where a person says, 'I don't feel like I'm in the right body.' We believe that's a blurring of the distinct way God created us as male and female."
Phoenix argues that transgenderism is compatible with Christian teaching.
"It was in the context of my faith in Christ, led by the Spirit, that I made the transition (of gender)," Phoenix said. "We want to be known as the children God created us to be. That's been my experience with my church, across the board."
"I can say that I have come home to the child that God created me to me, and I'm very joyful, whole and peaceful," Phoenix said Thursday at a press conference sponsored by pro-gay group Affirmation during the General Conference in Fort Worth.
Booth, meanwhile, says it's ironic that "gays and lesbians say, 'God created me this way' whereas transgender people say, 'God made a mistake.'"
"There's a real inconsistency here," she said.
Booth submitted petitions to the General Conference for church policy to state that neither transgenderism nor transsexuality "reflects God's best intentions for humankind."