United Methodists, one of the largest Protestant denominations that represents 8.3 million Christians, is planning to decide on its stance on homosexuality – whether or not it’s compatible with Christian teaching.
Starting Tuesday in Pittsburgh, almost 1,000 Methodists will gather for its General Conference and discuss over the issues concerning homosexuality such as gay ordination and same-sex unions.
Four years ago, the church’s first General Conference was held and claimed homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. As two-thirds of the delegates voted in 2000 to retain the church's ban on same-sex unions and its condemnation of homosexuality, many see that this year’s delegates are still not ready for any change yet.
"It will either stay the same - which is already harsh - or it will get worse," the Rev. Kenneth Chalker, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Cleveland, said of church policy on homosexuality. "The church is reflecting not a cultural change to be more liberal on this understanding, but almost a backlash to it."
"Most of society would be for traditional marriage, but we also see across the country more public debate, maybe a few more lawsuits, maybe a few more challenges," Kea Bishop Jonathan Keaton of the East Ohio Conference said, “Even if the church does not reach a consensus, he said, "Maybe conversation that leads to greater understanding isn't all bad."
Both churches and activist groups think the conference is important historically. While the conservatives are trying to tighten up church ban on gay clergy, more liberal Christians are hoping to see that church follows to promote social change.
The Rev. James Heidinger of the independent Methodist evangelical group Good News said the possibility of gay marriage in civil society and the election of gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson were "a wake-up call to people in the middle."
Like the nation's two largest churches - the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention - the United Methodist Church needs to stand firm in support of biblical teaching on homosexuality, he said.
"The church ought to be helping determine the moral temperature of society, rather than responding to it," Heidinger said.
Meanwhile, the interfaith gay-rights group Soulforce is planning on organizing a similar demonstration in Pittsburgh. Spokeswoman Laura Rutt said Soulforce is hoping that church will decide to embrace homosexuality, "to become the headlights, rather than the taillights" of social change.
Methodist leaders say if the church embraces homosexuality, it would cause seismic shift in mainline Protestantism, but if it remains against homosexuality, it would signal to others an enormous counterattack against the gay-rights movement
"I don't know if we have reached the tipping point for the church. It's going to be a fascinating time," said Gretchen Hakola, spokeswoman for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. "I sense in the church right now a holding of our breath."
Hakola said there is a lack of consensus in the church. "There are a lot of people in the church who are not on either extreme, but are really wrestling with the issue," she said. "It seems apparent that we as a church haven't come to a meeting of the minds with ourselves and with God."
The Rev. Gary George, head of the delegation representing 189,000 members in the East Ohio Conference, said the meeting is a national demarcation point in the debate over religion and sexuality.
"Whatever General Conference decides," George said, "it will have an impact not only on the United Methodist Church, but will have some impact on historic mainline Protestant denominations."