Methodists in Miss., Beyond Roiled by Lesbian Couples’ Church Testimony
A June 12 Methodist service that took place in Jackson, Mississippi, included testimony from a lesbian couple who spoke about the spiritual meaning the church had for them, and spoke of God's love for them and "home" they had found in the Methodist faith.
But members of the church in Mississippi and beyond recoiled from the message--and the messengers.
The service took place at the annual conference of the United Methodist Church. The setting, as much as the testimony and the couple who provided it, sparked controversy, leading to demands for an apology for having allowed the lesbian couple to speak.
Demanding the apology is the evangelical Methodist group the Mississippi Fellowship of United Methodist Evangelicals.
Mississippi newspaper the Clarion Ledger posted an August 3 story on the controversy, in which the head of the evangelical group, Rev. Ginger Holland, was quoted as explaining that, "To give witness of any kind appears to condone a certain practice."
While to some members of the faith the issue of gays and lesbians belonging to the church, much less speaking publicly about their relationship to God in the context of the faith, may seem a significant topic, for the couple at the center of the uproar there are other, more important issues that believers are neglecting to focus on them and their testimony.
The Clarion Ledger quoted Connie Campbell, who said, "I wish we were fighting instead over how to spend $1 million to help the poor."
It was Campbell and her partner, Renee Sappington, who gave the testimony that sparked the controversy. The couple belong to a Madison congregation.
The couple were invited to testify at the service. In her testimony, Campbell said, "We have no doubt that God embraces who we are and blesses our relationship, that God's doors are open even when the churches' doors sometimes aren't."
To be sure, the Methodist church recently failed to amend its church constitution in a manner that would have guaranteed that gays and lesbians may belong to the church, reported USA Today on Aug. 1.
If approved, that amendment may have gone some distance to rehabilitating the church in the eyes of the gay and lesbian faithful following an episode in which a gay men was denied church membership for "refusing" to become heterosexual.
The USA Today article indicated that if the American branch of the Methodist church could have approved the amendments on its own, the measure might have passed.
But the African branch of the church is less tolerant of gays and less willing to accept them as part of the church.
Similarly, African branches of the Anglican church have demanded that the North American branch of that faith "repent" for its openness toward gay Episcopalians.
In the current flap, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward is receiving pressure to issue an apology for having asked the couple to speak at the service along with an interracial couple and others who were invited to address the theme of having "found a home" in the Methodist faith.
The article said that Morgan and other clergy and church leaders had met following the testimony, and prepared a "Response from General Conference Delegation" in which it was specifically stated that, "There was no conspiracy to change ... the United Methodist Church's position or influence the vote on the Constitutional Amendments."
Also, the document stated that, "The placement of (Campbell and Sappington) was not appropriate in the worship service" and went on to reaffirm that "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."
However, "We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends," the document added.
But some say that is not enough; the article noted that a statement on the document co-written by Rev. Holland said that Ginger and other Methodist clergy were "deeply saddened when Bishop Ward's only expressed regret ... was over 'the chaos that has arisen among us.'"
A separate Clarion Ledger article published July 29 noted that Holland had referred to the issue in general terms of sin and salvation, saying that her organization had issued a call to its membership "to pray every day at noon for the bishops of the United Methodist Church and to pray for all people to hear the Good News and to walk through God's wide open doors to be saved through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ."
Added Holland, "We must not be consumed with this one issue, but must move forward centered on Jesus Christ who said, 'If I be lifted up, I will draw all people unto myself.'"
Added Holland, "We believe that God's doors are wide open to all people, and that God's grace is sufficient to heal and to cover all sins."
For her part, Campbell said in the August 3 article that if she could offer her testimony over again, "I might have asked the bishop how we could (testify) in a way that wouldn't seem threatening.
"I thought that talking about our love of God and finding a community where we were accepted was not offensive.
"In retrospect," added Campbell, "I would have communicated with a lot more people beforehand, or considered other venues where there could be a dialogue."