United Methodists who gathered recently for a once-every-four-years meeting made headlines both for what they did and what they did not do.
A delegation of Oklahomans, both laity and clergy, attended the United Methodists' General Conference April 24 through May 4 in Tampa, Fla. The elected delegates serve as the legislative body for the denomination.
The Rev. Bob Long, senior pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church, 222 NW 15, was among the delegates from the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference. The conference sent nine clergy delegates and nine lay delegates to participate in the conference where a total of about 988 delegates met.
More than 1,200 petitions about various issues were submitted for consideration by the General Conference delegates,
Long said delegates from more than 60 nations discussed several hot-
What they decided
• Retained the church's position regarding homosexuality.
• Decided not to divest from three companies whose products are used by the Israeli military in the occupied Palestinian territories.
• Did away with “guaranteed appointments” for clergy.
• Entered into full communion with a number of historically black pan-Methodist denominations.
• Approved making the United Methodist Women an autonomous organization rather than operating it under the church's missions agency.
• Created a national ministry plan for Pacific Islanders.
The delegates' response to two of the more prominent issues drew international attention.
Long said one of the issues that garnered widespread interest was the delegates' decision not to divest from companies whose products are used by the Israeli military in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Long said he argued successfully in favor of the move not to divest from Hewlett-Packard, Motorola Solutions and Caterpillar.
“We felt that rather than divest from these corporations, we wanted to make sure we stayed at the table. Rather than taking sides, we want to promote peace,” Long said.
He said the issue was probably the “most lobbied piece of legislation” with prominent clergy like retired Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu speaking before the delegates to ask them to divest.
“There was lots of emotion on both sides,” Long said.
Long said the delegates decision not to change the church's position regarding homosexuality also garnered widespread interest. Some gay advocacy groups expressed their displeasure with the church's decision, saying the inaction was not progressive.
However, Long said he thinks it took delegates courage to decide that they would stick with the church's traditional stance banning ordination of gay clergy and same-sex marriage.
“The church really struggles with this issue, as society struggles with this issue,” he said.
“I don't think it was the easy way out at all. You had those who were really pushing on both sides and I feel like it took some courage to say ‘No, we're going to hold our stance.'”
He said changing the church's position was discussed but not approved.
“We affirm that everyone is of sacred worth and God's grace is for all. At the same time, we are not pushing out or condemning anyone,” Long said.
Ross Murray, director of religion, faith and values for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said a growing number of United Methodists had asked that delegates remove the language from church law that barred gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people from full participation in the life of the church.
He said that although the church's position was not changed, he saw some positive things that came out of the discussion.
“It is disappointing that the church was not able to recognize that there are gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people in the denomination and that are already part of the church,” Murray said.
He said there were several clergy and others at the gathering who resolved to continue pushing for change. He said soon after the delegates' vote, a rally was held to celebrate the 1,200 clergy who signed a petition in favor of same-sex marriage. Murray said the group hopes to double their numbers soon.
Meanwhile, Long said he was especially pleased with the delegates' focus on increasing new church starts across the United States. He said this is a trend that has met with much success in Oklahoma. Also he said delegates voted to set aside money for young leadership development, an initiative to recruit and develop young pastors.