First I guess I have to start with some background. What is happening in Ft. Worth on April 23rd to May 2nd? It is called the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Why this is important to the LGBT community is some of the most interesting part. Historically Methodists with regard to sexuality have not been particularly accepting in a significant part of the church since the General Conference of 1972 when a conservative faction at the last minute after almost everyone had left snuck in a bill from the floor that declared homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The proposal had been discussed earlier and discarded, but was resubmitted at the end of the session after most of the folks who would have voted against it had headed off for their airplanes to home. Ever since, the language has continued to get more restrictive to the point where homosexual clergy have been stripped of their ordination, same sex weddings have been banned on UMC properties, and LGBT men and women have been denied entry into membership in congregations where they have attended for some time.
Gradually over time, the votes to remove that original proposition at subsequent General Conferences (held every four years) have served as a bellwether of the movement of the Methodist Church starting at about 80% against in 1984 and decreasing to 60% against in 2000 and 55% against in 2004.
In a significant way, the United Methodist Church(UMC) also serves as a marker of the centrism of the United States. Like the US, the western and northeastern jurisdictions of the UMC have led the way on inclusive language and progressive thought in the UMC. Unfortunately, the majority of the population of Methodists in the denomination are in the area stretching from Texas to Virginia to Ohio, which have been the more resistive to those ideas. Like in the country as whole, the Methodists occupy a centrist position in theology between Catholics and Baptists on the right, and the Episcopalians, the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalists on the left. As such they are now a good measure of where exactly the religious center of America lies. Anyone that does not understand the importance of knowing where that center is, and the role that religion plays in the determining the center of American politics either has their head in the sand, or is just plain not a student of American history. In some sense it is a case of: Where the UMC goes, so goes America.
This makes the UMC the canary of American social attitudes, so it is not by happenstance that the issues we see as mines in the political and social debate in America are the same ones on the docket in the UMC General Conference. The front lines in the fight for social acceptance of homosexuals and trans and same sex marriage have been major issues of debate, judicial decisions, and extended debate in the Annual (regional) Conference around the US in the last two years. Conservative forces in the form of the Institute for Religion and Democracy(IRD)–an outside group formed to try and influence primarily the Methodist and Presbyterian denominations toward socially conservative attitudes-have been spending millions of dollars in lobbying directly with newsletters, alerts, emails, and more junk mailings than Capitol One bank credit card to both the churches and directly to the members of the UMC congregations. It is an organized campaign using these denominations to move the center of American politics the same as those same conservative elements in the Republican Party try to move local and state elections to more conservative candidates, yet this seems to be completely off the radar of most LGBT folks. So repeatedly we see the LGBT community blindsided and mystified by the influence these conservative forces seem to have on the political landscape around them.
So what are the issues specifically being debated in the coming General Conference? Well I can speak specifically to petitions I have worked on that will come before the conference to do the following:
1) create equal access and never exclude anyone regardless of race, color, national origin, status, economic condition, gender, gender identity, marital status, sexual orientation or physical ability within the UMC,
2) to define marriage as a covenant relationship between two adult persons regardless of gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation,
3) to declare that homosexuality is not incompatible with Christian teaching, and that all persons regardless of gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation are deserving of equal rights,
4) that the clergy of the UMC should be allowed to perform commitment ceremonies and marriages according to local laws for all persons regardless of gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
Coming from the other side we are seeing petitions that do things like declare that no one ever be allowed to change their assigned sex at birth, and of course to continue prohibitions against the acceptance and inclusion of homosexuals and same sex marriage.
So I am hoping that you will take note of what happens. Something like the Methodist General Conference might otherwise not cause you to notice a news story or a blog posing because either you are not Methodist or have no interest in religion, but perhaps you may want to take some second looks at what is happening. And if you pray, those LGBT brothers and sisters and allies in the midst of these discussions in Ft. Worth would certainly appreciate some good thoughts coming their way.