The United Methodist Church reaffirmed yesterday that homosexual activity is "incompatible with Christian teaching" and struck down language that would have made the church more inclusive of gays and lesbians.
Delegates to the denomination's General Conference, meeting at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, voted 579 to 376 to strengthen the church's stand on the issue.
A proposal for more moderate language, recognizing "that Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching," failed to advance.
In calling for tougher language, Tennessee delegate H. Eddie Fox reiterated that the Bible supports the traditional interpretation.
"Jesus said so from the beginning of creation -- God made male and female. We must not send confusing messages to those who are part of this church," he said.
The measure now becomes part of the denomination's Social Principles, the guiding foundation of its faith as outlined in the Book of Discipline. It now says, "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers the practice incompatible with Christian teachings."
Added to the language was the clause that the United Methodists "seek to live together in Christian community."
The Rev. Margaret Mallory, who chaired the Church and Society subcommittee that voted to move more inclusive language forward last week, called the issue "a thorn in the collective side of the church."
She said the committee recommended the inclusive language to move the church out of "irreconcilable corners and to a place of dialogue."
The United Methodist Church, like most other mainline Protestant denominations, has been torn for decades by arguments over gay ordination and the blessing of gay relationships. Clearly, the divisions remain.
At the end of the morning plenary, scores of United Methodists, most wearing the rainbow-colored collars acknowledging support of a more liberal church, shared communion. When they were done, a communion cup was shattered as sign of a broken church.
After lunch, the delegates revisited the impassioned debate as they applied their decision to the denomination's standards for ordination, saying "avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church."Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Peggy Gaylord, left, of Binghamton, N.Y., comforts her friend, Vivian Waltz, of Alum Bank, Bedford County, after a vote at the United Methodist Church General Conference yesterday that reaffirmed the church's stance on homosexuality.
Click photo for larger image.
By a vote of 638-303 they also defeated a proposal that would have left the decision about whether to ordain active homosexuals up to each annual conference, which is the United Methodist version of a diocese.
Delegates also voted 436-466 to reject a proposed amendment from the legislative committee that would have added the statement, "As this difficult judgment is made, it is acknowledged that faithful Christians hold differing opinions in this matter."
Faith Geer, a reserve delegate from St. Paul United Methodist Church in McCandless, was one of those who wore a rainbow stole to show her support of gay ordination. Yesterday's votes saddened her, she said later. "It seems so simple to agree to disagree. That's all the petitions asked for, and we couldn't accept it," she said.
Before the start of the General Conference, officials with the Confessing Movement, a conservative branch of the church that supports more traditional interpretation of Scripture and claims 600,000 supporters, speculated that more inclusive language on homosexuals would lead to a schism.
"But we're hemorrhaging already," said the Rev. James Preston, of Rockford, Ill. "The church is bleeding today and we just need to be clear on that."
Preston said that four or five openly gay people had already left his congregation.
Yesterday's vote was taken as liberal observers stood in silent prayers as delegates voted. They sang "Amazing Grace" as the votes were tallied. An early morning prayer vigil had protesters on their knees.
Many supporters said the language adopted was a stronger, clearer stance against the practice of homosexuality. The last line of the new language, calling for living in Christian community, was an olive branch, offered by conservatives as a compassionate measure of healing.
However, in arguing for language inclusive of gays and lesbians, Preston said he believes the church fails to send a message of compassion that would heal wounds. "It is misleading to say people are welcomed, but if you disagree with [the church's perspective] you are not because you will not be acknowledged."
Some of the strongest opposition to tinkering with the language about homosexuality came from African delegates, who cautioned the church about licensing "people to go to hell."
"In African culture it is 'taboo' to speak about sexuality," said Kasap Owan Tshibang of the church's North Katanga area in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"We do not want to be caught up in the issue."
The Rev. Dale Shunk, a delegate from Johnstown who does mission work in Africa said the Africans would find it hypocritical if Americans did not renounce the practice of homosexuality after the Africans had renounced the practice of polygamy. "What we have done here today on this issue is good for the global church. It's good for us and it's good for them," Shunk said.
Also yesterday, the church's highest court handed down a ruling saying it had no power to reverse a lower church court ruling that the Rev. Karen Dammann, a self-avowed lesbian and United Methodist pastor who was tried for violation of church law, could remain in ministry. But the decision left her future unclear.
Two bishops who interpreted the decision for reporters said it was clear that no "self-avowed practicing homosexual" clergy could be appointed to a church in the future, but that it would be up to Dammann's bishop and annual conference to decide her particular case.
Retired Bishop Joseph Yeakel, of Hagerstown, Md., said that a bishop who appointed Dammann to a church could be put on trial for disobedience. But that if that bishop's board of ordained ministry and clergy conference decided that Dammann was a pastor in good standing, and the bishop then refused to appoint her to a church, the bishop could also be brought up on charges.
Ervin Dyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1410. Staff writer Ann Rodgers contributed to this report.