WHITE PINE, Tenn – While the Holston Conference delegation listened without comment, six out of eight speakers pleaded for inclusiveness for homosexual persons at a March 29 opening meeting held at First White Pine United Methodist Church.
The meeting was the fourth for elected persons representing Holston at General Conference later this month in Forth Worth, Texas, and at Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference in July at Lake Junaluska, N.C.
Delegate leaders publicized the March 29 meeting as an opportunity for any Holston member to address any topic. Eight speakers – four from First Oak Ridge UMC, and all from the Oak Ridge or Maryville Districts – signed up for five-minute time slots. Some speakers cited specific resolutions expected to be voted on by the General Conference.
The Rev. Al Shaver, pastor at Mountain View UMC in Maryville District, asked delegates to consider that “God’s way could be different than our own.”
“The love of Christ for all people is our ultimate goal,” Shaver said, referring to resolutions that would alter The Book of Discipline to seem more accepting to homosexuals. “Regardless of our moral thinking on the issue … we need to consider language that would invite them to come.”
“My brother is gay,” Shaver added, “and he’s had more church doors slammed in his face than I can tell you. Please lift your hearts and be in prayer when the issue comes up, and let God guide you.”
Bob Swing, member at First Oak Ridge UMC, said his daughter is a lesbian, living in a monogamous relationship, who recently adopted an infant.
“After I heard our Bishop plead with the Annual Conference for placements of black clergy, and after I talked with female clergy who say they feel rejected, and after I saw the hate-filled circulars sent to General Conference delegates … it’s been dictated to Joyce and me that we can no longer be quiet,” Swing said.
Swing distributed a petition he submitted to the General Conference in October, proposing deletion of The Book of Discipline statement: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Swing’s petition, similar to others submitted to the legislative body, proposes this substitution sentence: “The United Methodist Church embraces sexual fidelity and considers promiscuous, non-covenantal, sexual relationships incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Rachel Ryan, member at First Oak Ridge UMC, said she stopped attending the Roman Catholic Church after unsuccessful attempts to discuss with the leadership its non-acceptance of female clergy. While expressing pride in the United Methodist Church as “a church willing to change and evolve,” she said the denomination’s current language regarding homosexuals is “exclusionary and un-Christlike.”
Other speakers included Carol Green of Green Meadow UMC, in support of resolutions strengthening the denomination’s peace-favoring principles, and Samuel Duck of First Maryville UMC, asking the United Methodist Church not to boycott companies operating in Israel.
The Rev. Eddie Fox, Holston delegation leader, thanked the speakers for their participation. The Rev. Dennie Humphreys, clergy delegate from Chattanooga, Tenn., closed the session with prayer.
After the forum, Fox said the delegation would consider viewpoints and concerns of church members they represent as well as personal beliefs when deciding how to vote at General Conference.
“We each have our own deep convictions and understandings. That’s part of who we are,” Fox told The Call. “The thing that binds us is our love for Christ and each other. I love this church and want this church to be faithful.”
“We had several people speak today, but we didn’t hear everyone today,” Fox added, noting that other church members had communicated viewpoints and concerns to him prior to the March 29 meeting.
The Holston delegation to General Conference includes 14 delegates and four alternates, half clergy and half laity, attending the April 23-May 2 meeting in Texas.
The Holston delegation to Southeastern Jurisdiction includes 28 delegates attending the July 16-19 meeting in North Carolina.
General Conference is the top policy-making body of The United Methodist Church. Church law provides for a maximum of 1,000 delegates – half clergy, half lay. A conference's representation is based on the number of lay members and clergy members in the annual conference with a guarantee of representation by at least one lay and one clergy.
The General Conference revises The Book of Discipline (book of church law) and Social Principles and adopts resolutions on current moral, social, public policy and economic issues. It also approves plans and budgets for churchwide programs for the next four years.
In preparation for the 10-day meeting in Texas, General Conference delegates are now wading through1,564 pieces of proposed legislation, according to United Methodist News Service. The highest number of petitions are related to homosexuality, including 616 from groups or individuals asking General Conference to make no change in the existing statements on homosexuality within the church's Social Principles.
Another 326 petitioners are asking delegates to make no change in the present statement supporting laws that define marriage as the "union of one man and one woman." However, petitions proposing deletion of that clause have been submitted by the Board of Church and Society along with the Kansas East, Northern Illinois, Minnesota, California-Nevada, Oregon-Idaho, New England, California-Pacific and New York conferences.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.