PITTSBURGH - A conservative United Methodist pastor yesterday put forth a surprise, last-minute proposal to split the denomination in reaction to decades-long disagreements over homosexuality.
The Rev. William Hinson, president of the Confessing Movement for conservative Methodists, said in a letter that the church has been divided on commitments of conscience for the past 30 years and "it is the best option available to set people free."
Mr. Hinson drafted a resolution asking that delegates study the possibility of splitting the church before the denomination's General Conference, which has been meeting at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, concludes tonight.
The proposal caught some bishops and other conservatives off guard and cast a shadow over an emotional, nonviolent protest decrying decisions earlier this week that reaffirmed the church's condemnation of practicing homosexuals. The bishops didn't feel that a break was imminent in the 8.3-million-member church and said that Mr. Hinson, a retired Houston pastor, was speaking for himself. "This matter is unprecedented," said retired Bishop James Thomas of Atlanta, nothing that in his 15 General Conferences, he can't remember a proposal coming forward "to undermine the church's ministry."
"We don't want the statement to become a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Bishop Thomas, who argued that the unity of the church was highly valued and that, despite its pain on some racial and sexual issues, the conference was a reconciling
Not all conservative delegates were in agreement with the proposal. "I have not left this church, nor has the church left me," Tennessee delegate H. Eddie Fox said.
Mr. Fox was among the delegates who worked hard to draft new language on the homosexual divide calling for "living in Christian community," a deliberate attempt to keep the church united.
"I don't see people who are different from me as being enemies." Mr. Fox said.
A schism would be difficult, the bishops said, because the church's billions of dollars of assets and property belong to the General Conference.
And the conservatives would "shoot themselves in the foot," Bishop Minor said, because to walk away means they lose their ability to influence the mainline church.
The Rev. Joe Agne, co-president of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, which advocates for a more open church, accused evangelicals of using Scripture to divide the church.
"I'm tired of struggling with this issue," Mr. Agne said, "but I will continue to try to include people."
Delegates on Tuesday reaffirmed that homosexual activity was "incompatible with Christian teaching" and made it a chargeable offense under church law for clergy to conduct same-sex marriages and for unmarried ministers to have sex.
The news of Mr. Hinson's resolution surfaced in yesterday morning's plenary session as about 300 marchers, calling themselves a river of love, paraded through the main hall of the convention center in downtown Pittsburgh.
They interrupted proceedings for 20 minutes as delegates scrambled to get through the conference's remaining 170 petitions before adjournment tonight.
The nonviolent protest was organized by SoulForce, a national interfaith movement committed to ending "spiritual violence" perpetuated by religious policies and teachings against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.
The "river" flowed with clergy and laypeople, who quietly sang hymns of grace, including "Marching to Zion," while some observers clapped their hands. They carried placards reading "God Loves You and Me" and "River of Life and Love" and snaked around the bishops and others at the podium.
"We want the delegates who voted against us to see the faces and the pain of those who they condemned this week," said the Rev. Marylee Fithian, United Methodist minister and co-chair of the SoulForce United Methodist Denominational Team. "If one person's heart or mind has been changed through this incredible demonstration of love, we have succeeded."
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ervin Dyer is a staff writer at the Post-Gazette.
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