DAYTONA BEACH | Delegates to the annual meeting of the Florida United Methodist Conference on Friday expressed disapproval of a proposed change to the church's national constitution that would ensure gays are not denied membership in local congregations.
The approximately 1,700 delegates voted 587 to 406 to disapprove the amendment, which would change the United Methodist constitution to read, "All persons, upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ, shall be eligible to become professing members in any local church…"Results of Friday's vote were reported at Saturday's concluding session of the three-day conference, which met on the campus of Bethune-Cookman College, a historically black United Methodist school.
The conference gathered representatives from more than 700 United Methodist churches from the Apalachicola River in the Panhandle to Key West.The amendment was proposed in response to a 2005 case in Virginia in which a United Methodist pastor denied church membership to an openly gay man. Whether it will become part of the church's constitution will depend on voting results across the 8 million member denomination.Friday's debate on the amendment was restrained and relatively brief but reflected the disagreement over homosexuality that has riven the United Methodist Church for more than 30 years.
The debate also generally reflected a generational divide.Those opposed to the amendment argued that it would prevent pastors from calling gays to turn away from a lifestyle they say is immoral."The most sacred responsibility a pastor has is to help people understand what it means to repent … and be a follower of Jesus Christ," said the Rev. William Roughton of Lakeland, a retired pastor and district superintendent, speaking against the amendment.But two teenage delegates spoke in favor of the amendment as a way of reaching out to gays."If we're not saying they're welcome, we're saying they're not welcome, and if they're not welcome, how are they going to get the grace we say they need," said Carlene Fogle-Miller, 18, a member of First United Methodist Church in Lakeland and a youth delegate.Delegates also disapproved by a wide margin several amendments that would begin to reorganize the worldwide structure of the United Methodist Church.
The amendments would essentially grant more autonomy to Methodist churches in other countries, which meet jointly with American Methodists to set policy. A new U.S. conference would be created to meet separately from overseas Methodists.The amendments were approved by the church's General Conference in 2008 as the first step in a long-term process. Regional conferences, like the one in Florida, must ratify them for the process to continue.
But several speakers expressed concern that the amendments were presented for a vote without a specific plan how the reorganization will take place and how much it will cost.The Rev. Jim Harnish, pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, said he was sympathetic to the intention of the amendments but could not support them.
"To put it in down-home terms, don't buy a bear coat if it's still in the woods. This bear coat is still deep in the woods. It's been rushed through," he said.Friday's votes on all amendments will be added to tallies from the other 122 regional conferences in the United Methodist Church, 63 of which are in the United States.The amendments will pass if two-thirds of all voting members approve.Delegates were encouraged and entertained by the report of Mickey Wilson, Florida Conference treasurer, who used musical selections like "Here Comes the Sun" to emphasize a generally positive financial outlook for the conference.
Wilson noted that because of the economic downturn, the amount local congregations were able to contribute to the conference decreased from $24.4 million in 2006 to about $19 million in 2008. The conference lost almost $500,000 in 2008, which was covered through reserves, Wilson said.But he said contributions for the first half of 2009 have increased over the same period last year, and the conference's property and casualty fund has a $4 million surplus, thanks to a few years of low hurricane activity.
Delegates approved a $10.5 million budget, which is unchanged from 2008.Wilson also reported that the conference's new headquarters building, the former Holland & Knight offices on Lake Wire in Lakeland, has been purchased and should be ready for occupancy in May 2010.
[ Cary McMullen is religion editor for The Ledger. Read his blog, Scriptorium: A Religion Panorama, at religion.theledger.com. He can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7509. ]