|Henderson on General Conference:
Biggest issue, once again, is homosexuality
By Annette Bender
Of the 1,600 petitions that will be considered by General Conference April 27-May 7, Jean Henderson wishes the big issue were something other than homosexuality.
"I'd like to think we'd talk about why the church in the U.S. is continuing to decline," said the head of Holston Conference 's delegation to the denominational meeting in Pittsburgh. "Why, in 2000, did 40.7 percent of the churches in the U.S. fail to receive a single soul on profession of faith or restoration? What is God calling us to do or be in this time? Those are the questions that ought to take up the major portion of General Conference."
Henderson cites a proposal to expand the Igniting Ministry media campaign as an outreach/ evangelism issue that should take priority over gay issues. (See related article on page 6.) She also cited a General Board of Discipleship proposal to create a new ministry division for young people, and a Holy Communion study presented for the General Conference's adoption, as issues that should receive more attention.
"But with all of this," she said, "there is no doubt that the biggest issue that has been given to us once again is human sexuality, wrapped up in hundreds of petitions."
One of 16 delegates representing Holston in Pittsburgh, Henderson is attending General Conference for the fifth time. She leads the delegation because she was the first lay delegate elected at Annual Conference 2003. Holston alternates between clergy and lay delegation leaders. In General Conference 2008, a clergy member will lead Holston's delegation.
Convened every four years, the General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the entire 10-million member denomination. Nearly 1,000 delegates from around the world will gather for the intense, two-week meeting to make decisions that will guide the church for the 2005-2008 period.
Holston members join other United Methodists in focusing on homosexual issues at General Conference this year, especially after the recent Karen Dammann trial in Washington state, according to Henderson. (See related article on page 4.)
She estimated that she has received 40 e-mails, 20 letters and two phone calls from church members expressing concern about the Dammann verdict. "And they were all from one side. I have not had a single call or e-mail that says we need to change [the church's language], or we'll hope you'll have an open mind."
Currently, the denomination states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The church's language also speaks against selfavowed practicing homosexuals being ordained or appointed as clergy, and the prohibition of samesex union ceremonies by United Methodist ministers and in the church's sanctuaries.
Some General Conference petitions call for more moderate language in the church's Social Principles, which are considered guidelines but not law by the church, with the addition of a phrase noting that "faithful Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching."
At an April 15 open meeting of the General Conference delegation in White Pine, Tenn., nine of 13 guests from Holston churches spoke publicly. All nine expressed support for retaining or strengthening the church's language as it currently relates to homosexuality. Six delegates also spoke in support of the current language.
While she said the Holston delegation is "not all in agreement" on the issue, Henderson said she would "vote to retain the [Book of] Discipline as it is, unless it's a matter that would strengthen the support for what is already there."
"I believe that our Discipline presently upholds that which scripture teaches about the practice of homosexuality," Henderson said in a telephone interview from her Cleveland, Tenn., home. "I believe the Bible makes it clear. And I believe that tradition, reason and experience all confirm that it is not an acceptable Christian lifestyle.
"I want to say, too, that I have no right to support a change in that position. It's not my call. It's something that has stood the test of time for hundreds of years, and changing the position, to me, would be contrary to what I believe, to what our church says that it believes, and I think it would have disastrous results for the United Methodist Church."
Regardless of their views, delegates "dread" confrontation with homosexuality-related petitions at General Conference, Henderson said. "It has the potentional to be the most divisive of any issue ever before us."
She recalls the emotional intensity of General Conference 2000 in Cleveland, when delegates voted to retain the denomination's "homosexuality is incompatible" statement.
"I remember laying my head on the desk and crying, because when the demonstrations occurred and the pleas were made, I wanted in my heart to do something," she said.
"It wasn't just that I cared that these people were hurting," she said, referring to people who spoke out against the church's stance. "It was also that this was happening in the church all of this turmoil. The church is supposed to be a sanctuary, and it wasn't a safe place at all."
This year, Henderson and other delegates say they expect the arena to be as emotionally charged, if not more. Some Holston delegates said they were offended and threatened by a letter from Soulforce, an interfaith organization based in Lynchburg, Va., which promises to "publicly hold delegates of any UMC accountable in a nonviolent act of civil disobedience" if they fail to support pro-homosexual petitions.
"All of this is designed to convince us that now is the time to remove most all the references to homosexuality that are now contained in the Discipline," Henderson said.
But when it comes time to vote in Pittsburgh, she will vote according to her beliefs.
"Sometimes the question arises, 'Does the conference that elected us expect us to vote according to our convictions? Or do they expect us to vote according to what they think is the majority?'" she said.
"I think they elect us not really knowing what we believe. So the answer is, you vote according to how you feel this ought to be resolved. You have to stand up for your own convictions."
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