By the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”—I Corinthians 12:12
As seen in last month’s Part 1, the 12 days of the 1972 General Conference of The United Methodist Church were impacted by its denominational transitions and an era of critical social upheavals. For instance, one such social concern was the emergence of a liberation movement for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons taking place in the United States.
Part 2 describes the actual legislative interaction at this conference that resulted in the adoption of an official “incompatibility” (literally meaning “not capable of blending or being integrated”) toward LGBT persons. Also focused is the hope for a greater rising of equality and the discovery of a common ground around this terribly divisive issue.
The origins of the prejudicial decision have a link back to an action taken at the 1968 General Conference. At that meeting, the young United Methodist Church had a need to mesh together the social concerns of its two preceding churches—the Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church.
Four years of study
Therefore, appointed was a Social Principles Study Commission. The 32-member group was instructed to bring back its report in four years to the 1972 General Conference. It went about its task with amazing thoroughness and commitment.
Produced was a far-reaching report of more than 5,000 words that covered six major sections: the Natural, Nurturing, Social, Economic, World and Political “Communities.” Each of these sections included various sub-sections. The Nurturing area happened to contain a subsection on “Human Sexuality.”
This specific segment on human sexuality occupied only three percent of the total report. But embedded in this small spot happened to rest what historically would prove to be one of the church’s most hotly contested topics: homosexuality.
The following is the statement on human sexuality by this commission:
“We recognize that sex is a good gift of God, and we believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church, and society. We call all persons to disciplines that lead to the fulfillment of themselves, others and society in the stewardship of this gift. Medical, theological, and humanistic disciplines should, we believe, combine in a determined effort to understand sexuality more completely.
“Although men and women remain sexual beings whether or not they are married, sex between a man and woman is most clearly to be affirmed in the marriage bond. Sex may become exploitative within as well as outside marriage. We reject all sexual expression that damages or destroys the humanity God has given us as birthright, and we affirm all sexual expression that enhances that same humanity. We declare our acceptance of homosexuals as persons of sacred worth and we welcome them into the fellowship of the church. Further, we insist that society ensure their human and civil rights.”
On the third day of the conference, a brief introduction to the whole report on Social Principles was made by the study commission to the assembly’s thousand delegates. Following the usual procedure regarding standing committees, the report was then referred to the Legislative Committee on Christian Social Concerns.
Incompatibility not found
This committee’s role was to review and make any changes to the entire document and pass it back to the General Conference. The 92-member committee made very few changes or additions to the commission’s report.
It should be noted that nowhere to be found in either the four years of previous study done by an important UMC commission nor in the subsequent legislative standing committee was there any presence of an “incompatibility” concerning homosexuality.
How incompatibility was born
When the 10th day of the conference appeared, Atlanta’s temperature unseasonably had dropped nearly 40 degrees. But in the large assembly, the morning agenda was beginning to heat up. On this last Wednesday in April, history would see the denomination attempt to grapple officially with the rise of homosexuality from the closeted margins of society.
Gained from my archival search through conference journals and materials, the assembly scene that follows represents some of the highlighted legislative actions on that day in response to this decisive matter.
After deciding to change only one word of the first major section (the Natural community) in the Social Principles report, the conference assembly swiftly turned its attention to the subsection of “human sexuality” in the Nurturing section. And it essentially stayed there for a couple of hours the rest of the morning and additionally beyond.
The initial motion made was that of deleting the report’s last sentence in which the human and civil rights of homosexuals were ensured. Another delegate amended that particular motion. This intent went even further by removing the preceding sentence. That sentence began with the phrase. “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals.”
There apparently arose a fervent response of both support and opposition by the assembly to the resulting discussions. However, there soon was a request that such applause not be made during debate.
Amidst this vigorous moment, a delegate offered a substitute motion that had the potential of diminishing the precise protection that homosexual persons needed in the prejudicial climate of the early 1970s. That is, their being specifically designated and acknowledged in being guaranteed human and civil rights. The substitute motion was one of removing the word “homosexuals” and replacing it by “all persons.”
An opposition to taking such action was expressed by two delegates. From his background as a physician, one presented some positive remarks about homosexuality. His comments were judged, in parliamentary language, to be argumentative rather than informational. Therefore, he was asked to discontinue his presentation. Adding more disagreement to the motion, another delegate indicated favoring the adoption of the entire human sexuality subsection without any alteration.
When the next action was that of moving the earlier question for making the word changes in the sentences, the representative from the legislative committee took the floor. He was bothered by some of the negative comments heard in previous discussions. Presumably a reference had been made that there existed a fear that young boys likely could be kidnapped by homosexual men.
Also he focused on the unfavorable words expressed over the standing committee’s having invited some homosexuals to speak to the committee in its study and review. In defense of the thoroughly prepared Social Principles report, the speaker said, “It represents the honest concern of well informed people.”
Nevertheless, the General Conference voted to make the word changes. In doing so, homosexual persons were moved further to the UMC sidelines. The specificity of “homosexuals” was paved over. And instead the more spacious and safe generalization of “all persons” was ushered in.
Soon after this vote, the proceedings of the conference seemed to experience moments of confusion. A delegate said that the previous vote on these word changes had taken place without his understanding that it had applied not only to human sexuality but to all of the other subsections. Hence, the conference voted to reconsider the voting action taken on the word changes.
This new action provided an opening for an amendment against same-sex marriage to be introduced for the marriage subsection. Needless to say, such a heightened controversial matter would certainly create a whole new wave of anxiety to ripple through the assembly. The amendment was put to a voice vote, and the chair announced it had passed.
But discontent was expressed by a delegate with that decision. A vote count instead was requested. And that compilation showed that the amendment indeed had not passed.
Did the earlier vote on the conflictual word changes—followed now by this phase of some uncertainty and confusion in the proceedings—help in a ragged fashion to prepare the way soon for a more elevated and drastic action to occur?
Created by a comma
The hard-fought morning session neared its end. But “incompatibility’s” knock on the church’s door shortly would be heard. Its fuller birth entered UMC history in the shape of a proposed amendment.
And its midwife for this added clause was a comma.
The delegate’s proposal was that of amending the last sentence in human sexuality’s subsection. The following wording was presented: “Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured, though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice INCOMPATIBLE (capitals added) with Christian doctrine.”
After this proposal was made, time expired for the morning’s schedule. An extension was permitted. And it was during this added time that a vote on the amendment sealed a baptism for “incompatibility’s” contentious life in the UMC.
Before leaving for lunch, all of the subsections (human sexuality, birth and death, marriage, and family) of the major Nurturing community section were quickly adopted by the General Conference. Portions of both the afternoon and evening sessions of this busy 10th day were legislatively devoted to the rest of the remaining major sections of the Social Principles report.
As can be seen, the main spotlight of that somewhat restless day in the early 1970s had been placed on the homosexual community, a group most vulnerable to the dangers of being scapegoated. In this instance, were our LGBT brothers and sisters used as a compromise to break an impasse or logjam in the assembly’s proceedings? Were they pinpointed in order to show the church and public that an extremely strong religious stand will now be shown to fight mightily against the liberating upheavals of the era?
Two days later, the curtain came down on this General Conference. Along with its heavy challenges and accomplishments, it had, however, bequeathed the church with a 43-year-old quandary.
Prohibitions and protests
In almost every General Conference since then and leading up to the 2016 event, there has been a tight upholding of the incompatibility clause. Its continuity has functioned as the main fortification to restrain LGBT persons from a more complete inclusion in the church.
Spawned from its presence in the Book of Discipline, there are abundant examples of the General Conference’s preventative actions. They include the withholding of funds from any UMC agency advocating homosexual rights (1976), restriction on ordination (1984) and prohibition of clergy in performing homosexual unions (1996) and same-sex marriages (2004). Unbelievably, a proposal’s truthful language that inferred United Methodists are “not of one mind” on the issue of homosexuality was defeated (2012).
In response to this denying of equality and the damming up of “justice rolling on like a river” (Amos 5:24), LGBT persons and their supportive allies passionately have protested these unfair decisions at General Conferences. These dissenting moments have included large rallies, prayer vigils, silent marches through the assembly arena, participation by some bishops and the covering of a central altar with a black mourning cloth.
Drain on the church
If the General Conference’s decisions to continue its reliance on this stance regarding homosexuality, the church invariably will slide further behind (at least in the United States) in today’s rapid momentum of bringing fairness and justice to LGBT persons.
For example, United States support for marriage equality rose remarkably from 12 percent in 1980 to nearly 60 percent in 2015. Since 73 percent of the millennial generation in the United States display an approval of same-sex marriage, the UMC likely will lose a large number of that generation for the future.
While this battle has remained in the church, it produces a constant energy drain on the critical outreach so desperately needed for response to today’s social crises. In South Carolina, 73,000 of its children are living without health care. And 80 percent of the people living in United States poverty are from vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, disabled, students and the working poor.
The official bodies of many other mainline denominations—for instance, the Episcopal Church, United States; the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America; and the Presbyterian Church (USA)—already have adopted policies regarding full LGBT equality.
Body of Christ in pain
In representing the Body of Christ, how much longer can our church afford not to bring a sense of healing and resolving to this long-standing plight over homosexuality?
With its heritage of existing on a “middle ground” between conservatism and liberalism, this particular struggle in attempting to weave these two strong strands together has been waged in a fitful center for years. Foundational differences in either end of the spectrum are seen in such areas as Biblical interpretation, theology, continental differences and worldview.
One outlook may perceive the acceptance of homosexuality as an erosion of faith and society, while the other is more committed to the progressive building up of equality and diversity in these areas.
Regardless, a person’s conscience and unique life of faith cannot be discarded in the overall efforts for unity. (For example, I have brought my own progressive perspectives—wrought from 25 years of being a pastoral supporter of the LGBT community—to this particular commentary.)
Nor should attempts to exert domination of one strand over the other be welcomed in a trustworthy healing, so crucially needed between the two outlooks. Being in this denominational boat together, it is more than timely to discard an easy “us/them” view and learn how to feel and say “we.”
Time and again in history, the risking of such a journey reaps transformative religious and social blessings. As Joseph Campbell has said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
But today the sad fact remains that homosexual persons—in enduring unjustified suffering—have not yet been embraced with a full life in the church. This inaction goes against the main thrust for unity in the Gospel’s message: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (I Corinthians 12:12).
Rest in peace
Though opinions differ and commitments vary, the fractured Body of Christ calls out for an action that soon will open doors completely wide for all of God’s children. Should that deed be an extraction of a stress-ridden incompatibility clause or some other broader systemic approach?
Regardless, to do no less would result in flight from John Wesley’s memorable question: “Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike.”
Truly incompatibility’s spell on us for these decades needs to be put to rest.
Summers is a retired United Methodist minister. He served as a fulltime chaplaincy director and supervisor of clinical pastoral education for 35 years with the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. In preparation for this article, he appreciated resources provided by the United Methodist Archives and History Center at Drew University.