Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church: Part 1

By the time we reach General Conference next year, our denomination will have been struggling with the issue of sexuality for 36 years! Yet, few in our Church seem to remember how this debate began in the first place.

In 1972, as the newly merged United Methodist Church re-shaped its Social Principles two gay clergy persons, Gene Leggett from Texas and Earnest Reaugh from upstate New York, submitted a resolution in support of gay and lesbian persons in the Church. Inspired by movements for equal rights of gay and lesbian people following the historic events at Stonewall in 1969, Leggett and Reaugh believed the Church ought to join this social justice movement that was erupting around the country. They understood the issue of gay and lesbian rights as part of the long legacy of social justice advocacy within the Methodist movement. Their original resolution read as follows:

"Homosexual persons, no less than heterosexual persons, are persons of sacred worth, who 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 which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured."

While the Atlanta 1972 General Conference included many progressive voices in support of this resolution including delegations of youth, young adults and seminary students, a small group of conservative leaders from the southeast and south central jurisdictions, frustrated by their failed attempts to block the creation of commissions addressing religion and race and the status and role of women, were able with the help of what Morris Floyd identifies as "parliamentary process 'errors'" to amend Leggett and Reaugh's resolution to include this last sentence...

"though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."

This phrase now known throughout the Church as the "incompatibility clause" has become the very foundation of continued discrimination and exclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in the church. Since 1972 we have watched with sadness and disappointment as more and more barriers to full participation have been added upon this one clause; restricting funding for ministries with GLBT persons, prohibiting same-sex unions and marriages, barring faithful GLBT persons from ordained ministry, and even in recent years prohibiting faithful Christians who happen to be GLBT from joining the membership of the Church.

The day this clause passed Georgia Harkness, renowned Methodist theologian and scholar, held her head in her hands and lamented..."They know not what they do. It will take years to undo the damage they have done today."


NOTE: For more information on this early conference see the following resources:

Morris Floyd, "A Ministry and Movement of Reconciliation" in Open Hands (Vol. 15, No. 4) Spring 2000

Charles Keysor, "In the Aftermath of Atlanta." Good News, 1972 Summer: 38, 45.


Kirk said...

Huh. I didn't know any of that wrangling that added the line that makes the de facto exculsion a de jure legalization.

Nor did I realize that Georgia Harkness was still alive at the time!

Rev. Tiffany Steinwert said... of our allies in the movement had that conversation with her right after the vote was taken. Harkness passed in 1974.

It's amazing how our story gets told differently over time. It began with a push for inclusion.

In later posts you'll also see that the Church was open to GLBT pastors until 1984 and to unions until the 90s.

The exclusion we now face is really a recent addition to a much longer tradition of openness and inclusion.

Anonymous said...

The current UMC position on homosexuality reflects the considered prayerful opinion of the majority of UM speaking through their delegates at General Conference. That position is the result of sincere long reflection, dialogue and conferencing across many years. That in earlier years the UMC may have had a different position at least reflects that at that time this issue was no of principle concern to the majority of UM. That this issue is of continuing interest reflects the continuing tension of the Church standing against a culture that resents being confronted with moral absolutes especially as touches upon sexual practices.