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Western Jurisdiction challenges homosexuality stance

The United Methodist Western Jurisdictional Conference convenes in Portland, Ore. UMNS photos by Linda Sullivan.

By Marta W. Aldrich*
July 22, 2008 | PORTLAND, Ore. (UMNS)

Challenging the United Methodist stance on homosexuality, the church’s Western Jurisdictional Conference approved four statements aimed at changing denominational policies and beliefs on human sexuality.

With no debate, the legislative assembly voted July 18 in favor of resolutions that presenters said will serve as "a witness to the general church."

One resolution celebrated a May 15 ruling by the California Supreme Court clearing the way for gay marriages, which began in that state June 16. It states, in part, that the conference supports "same-gender couples who enter into the marriage covenant and encourage(s) both congregations and pastors to welcome, embrace and provide spiritual nurture and pastoral care for these families."

Another asks that church leaders look for "creative ways" to "be in full ministry with all who come to us" and declares an intention not to penalize clergy or churches "for being agents of this ministry in God’s name."

A third resolution challenges decisions last April by General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, that kept intact the church’s position that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

"We stand with our gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender brothers and sisters, both lay and clergy, who have been shunned by The United Methodist Church in polity and deed," the resolution states. "… As a welcoming and reconciling jurisdiction, we will take steps of inclusion in the sacred trust of marriage, ordination and leadership roles for all."

A fourth resolution affirms a statement approved by the human sexuality subcommittee of General Conference. That statement, which was not approved by the churchwide assembly, says United Methodists and other Christians "have struggled to find principles for applying traditional teachings to contemporary understandings of human sexuality." The resolution encourages "the medical, theological and social science disciplines to combine in a determined effort to understand human sexuality more completely."

As the only body that speaks for the entire church, General Conference affirmed its stance while holding that all people are "individuals of sacred worth created in the image of God." Meeting in Forth Worth, Texas, the denominational assembly also retained statements asking "families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends."

General Conference represents a worldwide denomination of 11.5 million people. Of those, 390,000 United Methodists are in the Western Jurisdiction, which covers the Western United States and some U.S. territories in the Pacific.

Pushing for change

In the wake of the California high court's ruling, the Western Jurisdiction’s resolutions followed others passed in June by the California-Pacific and California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conferences. Those resolutions include support of United Methodist clergy who choose to perform same-sex marriages, including one that lists and commends 82 retired clergy who have offered to perform such ceremonies.

The Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, meeting during the same week as the Western, voiced support for those clergy as well.

In a ruling of law issued earlier in July, Bishop Beverly J. Shamana said California-Nevada's statement commending those pastors was "void and of no effect." Her ruling said the conference does not have the power to offer clergy services that could be chargeable offenses under church law, which prohibits United Methodist pastors and churches from conducting ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions.

A minority in the church

Leaders of the Western Jurisdictional Conference and its annual conferences have become increasingly vocal about including and affirming people of diverse sexual orientations in the life and sacraments of the church.

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson presides over one session of the legislative gathering.

"As the population has grown in the Western Jurisdiction, people have increasingly come to know more and more people in our Christian community who are gay and lesbian people, and so there is a desire … to be a home for all of God’s people," Bishop Mary Ann Swenson told United Methodist News Service.

"It’s been a growing vision over time, and the majority of people in our leadership would wish for the Book of Discipline and the denomination’s position to change," said Swenson, of the church’s Los Angeles Area. "But the majority of people in our jurisdiction are a minority of people for the whole church."

Leah Gallardo Switzer, one of two jurisdictional delegates to vote against the four resolutions, said she represents "that silent voice in the California-Pacific Conference" that sides with the denominational stance.

"I believe everyone is welcome at God’s table," said Switzer. "My issue is marriage. I believe marriage is a sacrament that God intended for a man and a woman. At the same time, I believe there are many more important issues, such as poverty and human trafficking, that God is calling us to address. These are the things I’d like to see us spending more of our energy speaking to."

 *Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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