By Jim Winkler
At its spring 2006 meeting, the General Board of Church and Society invited the Rev. Eric Law to lead us through a process of careful listening and Christian conferencing in preparation for dealing with the difficult issues we knew would arise as we considered petitions and resolutions to be sent to the 2008 General Conference.
In October at our fall meeting we put this into practice. The Human Welfare Work Area first considered proposals brought forth by board members to change the existing Social Principles language on homosexuality and marriage. As they took up consideration of the resolutions, board members insisted that everyone present in the room be part of the circle, invited to speak or to remain silent, but all bound to keep confidential what others shared. Each person was invited to share — their proposed wording for the resolution, their feelings, their stories — whatever was on their hearts. They went around the circle repeatedly until all were heard. At times, the discussion was emotional.
What took place was not a debate but testimonials before God of what was on the hearts and minds of each person. If the General Conference does things right, a similar process of listening and discerning will take place in contrast to previous General Conferences. Holy conferencing has not marked the General Conference's discussion of difficult matters in recent memory. There, the debate has been argumentative and coercive with an emphasis on coercive.
At our board meeting, the proposed language changes were presented to the plenary by the work areas. After much discussion, the full board voted 21-17 to recommend to the General Conference "While Christians of good faith differ on what Christian teaching reveals regarding gender and homosexuality" be in the Social Principles in place of "The United Methodist Church does not condone homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."
The board then voted 23-14 to recommend the Social Principles should read: "We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant between two adult persons that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity."
The board also proposes to remove the sentence in the Social Principles which reads, "We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman."
Over the past two weeks, I have been accosted by people who feel strongly about these matters on both sides. They are either angry that the board has proposed any change or angry that the board has not been activist enough. I know it is only a taste of what is to come. Still, I pray that all United Methodists will behave decently to one another as we consider difficult topics. We need to keep these matters in perspective.
"Love is not the ultimate nature of God," said one TV preacher. "No," he said, "God places a higher value on trust."
I disagree with the televangelist. I hold firm to 1 John 4:8: "He who does not love does not know God, for God is love." Trust, though, is crucial and we work hard to establish trust with one another.
Winkler is general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society. This column appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of “Faith and Action” newsletter.
The United Methodist Position
Part of a larger statement on "Human Sexuality" appearing in "The Nurturing Community," a section of the church's Social Principles. Paragraph 161G.
"Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God's grace is available to all. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons."
The sentence "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches" was moved by the General Conference from the Social Principles section on marriage to a part of the Book of Discipline dealing with the behavior of ordained clergy