By the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers
“For God shows no partiality.”—Romans 2:11
Remaining as a constant burden around the neck of the United Methodist Church, its General Conference’s decision in 1972 that the “practice” of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” continues to radiate its polarizing influence.
For example, discrimination is clearly seen in the statement’s use of practice. In pointing toward a bodily emphasis, a negative focus is placed on the homosexual person’s sexual life. And no recognition is given to the basic God-given innateness of sexual orientation.
Thus, a rejecting message is communicated to homosexual persons: Don’t be who you are; and, by all means, don’t practice who you are. This may well represent one of the most severe double-binds that the church has ever presented to a group of faultless persons.
Further, the word incompatible means “not capable of blending or being integrated.” The definition implies a sense of division. And compatible ironically is derived from the Latin that signifies “compassion.” The decision to take gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons away from a fuller United Methodist life clearly displays the opposite of a welcomed inclusion in the church. Instead, it should be shown that “God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11).
What went into the birthing of such a hurtful vote that today still blasts an oppressive strike into the hearts of a countless number of LGBT persons and their families? Furthermore, how has this withdrawal of our denomination’s historical devotion to equality and fairness for a minority been officially allowed to exist over the long stretch of these years?
Historians tell us that we gain a more thorough understanding of the present by examining the influential features of the past. Hence, this two-part commentary focuses on the origins of how the UMC’s 43-year-old dilemma began and why it needs to be resolved.
This month’s Part I deals primarily with the context and atmosphere in which this controversial decision was created by a General Conference years ago.
If the calendar could be turned back to mid-April of 1972, we would be able to imagine the springtime beauty of Atlanta and its then-metropolitan area of more than two million people. Also viewed would be a busy downtown Civic Center. This venue was hosting a bustling crowd of approximately 1,000 UMC clergy and lay delegates for a 12-day General Conference meeting. Every four years this top legislative body gathers in order to carry out its policy-making role.
Although international in its connectional nature, the largest number of attendees to this particular assembly arrived from all corners of the United States. Jam-packed was luggage, but just as similarly filled up for the United States participants was certainly an awareness that their nation and religious denomination were simultaneously undergoing upheaval and change.
Social unrest in the United States
One vivid national feature in this era was a sexual revolution that had spilled over from the 1960s. With the advent of the contraceptive pill, increased public discussion was taking place. There was an acceptability for many colleges to allow co-educational housing. Also, many studies indicated that the majority of newly married couples had experienced sex before marriage.
Added to this changing social landscape were the deep uncertainties in reference to an unpopular Vietnam War. A couple of years prior to this particular conference, four protesting Kent State students were shot and killed by Ohio’s National Guard. Also, United States Senate hearings had begun to explore a possible conspiracy cover-up involving the United States President and his administration—a situation to become known as Watergate.
Furthermore, the delegates would have carried with them to Atlanta a mixture of feelings about the Supreme Court’s contentious decision on abortion (Roe vs. Wade) made five months earlier. A public war of words also was seen that year as a result of the Equal Rights Amendment, guaranteeing equality for women. The failure in ERA’s not being ultimately ratified for the nation was likely due to a growing opposition linked to the issue of abortion.
A massive movement for gay liberation represented another tumultuous theme rushing onto the American scene. An increasing number of LGBT persons had begun to risk leaving the shadows of their hidden closets and claim their rights for equality.
The beginnings of this journey for justice was prompted in 1969 by a series of police brutalities and arrests of LGBT persons in the Stonewall Inn area of New York City. And by 1972, large Gay Pride marches were appearing in such locales as Washington, Miami, New York, Detroit and San Francisco.
Until the late 1940s, the topic of homosexuality had been almost invisible to the mainstream media and in public discussion. Almost every state had criminalized homosexuality in same-gender sexual activity. But in the 1970s, there would be 18 states striking down such discriminatory laws by the end of the decade. Also, the removal of homosexuality as a psychiatric diagnosis of mental illness would take place in 1973.
But in these initial stages of a gay liberating impetus, controversial energies began to be stirred as a backlash. These resistances often were expressed in scriptural terms by a large portion of the religious community. And such judgmental misunderstandings sadly would help cultivate a UMC seedbed that helped to grow for the 1972 General Conference a resulting legislated incompatibility toward LGBT persons.
The 1972 delegates to the UMC General Conference happened to be living at a time when these hotly charged issues of the sexual revolution, Vietnam, abortion and the beginnings of LGBT liberation were taking a center stage in the social climate.
(Likewise, today’s era would contain its own unique matters of dispute in the social arena. They would include legalization of same-sex marriage, political and religious polarization, terror-filled rise of ISIS, gun violence and climate change.)
In addition to the impact that such jarring matters as the sexual revolution and the war in Vietnam had on the conference in Atlanta, a review of archived journals and other materials from that year’s meeting reveals a further momentous aspect. That is, the conference’s agenda included extremely formidable organizational concerns for the UMC.
For example, this quadrennial gathering represented the first full General Conference for the then four-year-old United Methodist Church. The newly created denomination had been fashioned out of a merger between the smaller Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church. Discovered in many of the various reports offered at this meeting are signs of the ongoing newness of integrating the two earlier organizational systems and doctrines.
A further feature of this transitional time was that of the recognized dissolving of the Central Jurisdictional Conference—a former racially segregated and historically compromised entity of annual conferences. Uneasiness could be sensed in comments by some African-American leaders as to how much they and their critical issues would be truly welcomed into this fledgling denominational system.
In addition, the conference established a Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Its function was to seek the elimination of inequities in relation to women in the mission of the UMC. In 1972 only one out of 100 parish pastors in the United States were women. And four years later would see but a total of 10 clergywomen elected as delegates to a General Conference
The mix of unsettling social issues in the nation with these weighty denominational transitions was destined to result in anything but a comfortable context for the 1972 Conference.
Social urgency at conference
This meeting very naturally had a plethora of reports and presentations that were successfully considered. Also scattered throughout the 12 days were various uplifting and poignant moments. Examples included these actions: transportation arranged for periodic pilgrimages to the grave of Martin Luther King Jr., a prolonged ovation given for the presence of the noted Georgia Harkness—a legendary champion of the rights for women, inspiring music by such diverse choral groups as Claflin College and the Indian Choir of Dallas, and an address made by Governor Jimmy Carter.
Nevertheless, the conference proceedings were threaded throughout with numerous situations that were painted by the brush strokes of socially pressing and seemingly urgent matters.
As an illustration, Bishop Gerald Ensley included in his Episcopal Address on opening day comments about the era’s insecurity: “We are reminded that we are coming to the close of a mode of life that has hung together for centuries…. Our day is perilous, but life has always been dangerous.”
Also, later that same morning a challenging call for courage in racial relationships can be sensed in the report from the chairman of Black Methodists for Church Renewal.
He said, “We want United Methodism somehow to begin the risk to risk its very institutional life in order to find its soul.”
During the conference’s stay in Atlanta, there were news reports of racial protest at one of the local hospitals due to discriminatory policy. And some of the delegates went and joined these picket lines.
Two days following the BMCR’s stirring report, the Theological Study Commission on Doctrine and Doctrinal Standards called for the church to make new commitments in the theological task.
Dr. Albert Outler reminded the UMC to keep alive the broad theological diversity as seen in the Wesley maxim: “We Methodists think and let think.”
As well, Bishop William Cannon called for theological relevance: “Theology is no more than a museum of old treasures unless it is rethought, restated and applied to every new generation.”
The conflict raging in Vietnam also made its way into the energized setting of the conference. Before the end of the fourth day, a delegate told the assembly that headlines “scream at us every day.” He spoke about the war’s tragedy, including the death of children and other innocents due to the massive and indiscriminate bombings.
The delegate requested that the whole assembly, as it left for lunch that day, to leave in prayerful meditation about the horrors taking place in Southeast Asia. The Conference Journal of that day earnestly reported: “The delegates left in silence.”
Another intense occurrence—that of featuring the Rev. Cecil Williams of the famed Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco—took place near the midway point of the conference. He was well-known nationally for his ministry of worship and social action with marginalized groups such as LGBT persons.
That afternoon, he was already robed and prepared to speak in a downtown church. The crowd became so large that the service was quickly moved to the General Conference’s assembly hall at the Civic Center. It was reported that he “was supposed to be a minor figure for an afternoon service, but he occupied all of the headlines during and after the event.”
On the conference’s seventh day, the delegates wrestled with the question of how the UMC might make a strong public witness as related to the Vietnam War. A recommendation from the bold report of the Bishops Call to Peace was to divest financially more than 13 million dollars from four identified United States corporations. These companies were making armaments—weapons used for the bombings over Cambodia and other war zones.
Through conflictual discussion, the conference finally voted not to name the corporations but to take some action of expressing its profound concern. But a stinging comment seemed to remain in the hearts of some delegates opposed to this softer vote: “We do not witness in general; we witness to specific acts of injustice.”
Thus, throughout the 1972 General Conference’s activity, there appears time and again a highly noticeable contextual focus on an uncertain era needing an urgent social response.
And it was on the 10th day in this somewhat unsteady UMC cradle and atmosphere that an incompatibility toward homosexuality was born.
Summer’ Part 2 Point, here examines that specific day of nativity. Also included will be some key events leading up to this vote on a divisive incompatibility, its damaging consequences and a call for unity.
Summers is a retired United Methodist minister. He served as a full-time 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 & History Center at Drew University.