- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2000

CLEVELAND United Methodist Church leaders resisted pressure from demonstrators and reaffirmed their opposition Thursday to homosexual behavior, ordination of active homosexuals and weddinglike blessings of same-sex couples.

The decisions raise the prospect of continuing turmoil, church trials for dissenting clergy and perhaps even a schism in the denomination, which has 8.4 million U.S. members and 1.2 million overseas.

Outside the meeting room, Joe Whittemore, the layman who heads the North Georgia delegation, had tears in his eyes.

"We have made it clear and unequivocable that the homosexual community is welcome in the United Methodist Church," he said. "But that does not mean that we can change our doctrine and our historical position about homosexual practice being incompatible with Christian teaching."

"No one is taking any joy in this," said Tom Jackson from Athens, who supported the rulings. "At some point, though, the church has to clearly express its stand. It's sad any time there is a deep division in the body of Christ."

During much of the tense, daylong debate, pro-gay demonstrators stood in silent protest at the front of the hall.

After the vote on homosexual ceremonies, they sang "We Shall Overcome" and refused to let the meeting proceed. Police arrested 27 protesters, including bishops from Chicago and Albany, N.Y.

It was the first such disruption of a major U.S. church assembly over homosexuality, and activists said it would not be the last.

The demonstration came a day after 191 activists were arrested for blocking a driveway to the convention center where the Methodist meeting is being held.

Demonstrators taken into custody Thursday were charged with disruption of a lawful meeting, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine.

"We believe this church has broken a covenant with us," said protester Randy Miller of San Francisco as he addressed the convention for the protesters.

By taking a stance against homosexuality, the church is rejecting people who have been Methodists all their lives, he said.

"We are not strangers to this church," he said.

Thursday's vote totals were 628-337 to maintain the stand that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," 640-317 on ordinations and 646-294 to forbid same-sex ceremonies.

Of the three votes, the prohibition of homosexual blessing ceremonies looms as the most troublesome. Hundreds of liberal Methodist clergy have pledged to disobey this church law.

Three trials since 1998 for ministers who conducted such rites have ended with mixed results.

"We cannot allow church trials to drive some members out of the denomination," said the Rev. Emery Percell of Rockford, Ill. "I hesitate to think of the destruction and disruptions in this church if we go down the route of church trials."

But the Rev. Robert Hayes, a district superintendent in Houston, appealed for a firm stand.

"Over the last few years, our denomination has been rocked by those who would interpret existing language as vague and unenforceable," he said. "If we allow change at this point the church would have no leverage at all in such cases. This would destroy further the tapestry that holds our church together."

The reaffirmed policy says "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

A related ruling Thursday from the church's Judicial Council said local Methodist units and individuals may not "legally negate, ignore or violate" sections of church law with which they disagree.

The ruling rejected liberal-conscience claims, most notably from Bishop Melvin Talbert of Sacramento, Calif., who endorsed the February acquittal of 67 clergy who led a union ceremony for a lesbian couple despite the denominational ban.

Bishop Talbert said local Methodists' "commitments to inclusiveness and justice" take precedence over national church law.

Church traditionalists have filed separate charges against Bishop Talbert over that statement.

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