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30 at Methodist conference protest policies on gays

Friday, June 09, 2000

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Wearing rainbow ribbons and carrying signs proclaiming God's love for gay people, about 30 protesters stood silently before the podium at the United Methodist Annual Conference of Western Pennsylvania yesterday as delegates to last month's United Methodist national convention gave their reports.

Vivian Waltz cradles her 4-month-old daughter, Charlotte, as she holds a banner during a protest yesterday at the United Methodist Annual Conference of Western Pennsylvania at Grove City College. The group was protesting the national conference’s stand against gay ordination and against the blessing of gay relationships. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette) 

The protesters feared that the conservative Western Pennsylvania delegation would make no mention of the 222 people -- including two United Methodist Bishops -- who were arrested at the national convention in Cleveland while protesting the denomination's policies against ordaining sexually active gay people or blessing gay relationships.

But Bishop George Bashore of Western Pennsylvania, who opposes gay ordination and same-sex relationships, issued a plea for mutual respect and love between Methodists who are divided over the sexuality issue.

Bashore, who will retire this summer, called attention to the orderly conduct of the protesters at Grove City College, where 1,300 United Methodists are meeting through Sunday. They protested, he said, "out of hearts filled with anguish."

Organizers planned the protest because, after 15 bishops at the 1996 national conference called for gay ordination, those who reported back to Western Pennsylvania said nothing about it, said Sally Jo Snyder, pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in New Castle.

"I think that, on any justice issue, one of the most dehumanizing things we can do is to ignore it. Not just ignore the issue, but ignore the person," she said. "This is an active silent witness to say we are here and that they need to look past the issue and see the person."

The delegates to this year's national conference spoke on matters such as a television campaign to promote the United Methodist Church, support for overseas missions and a prayer service of repentance for past discrimination against black Methodists. Two lay speakers briefly mentioned the protests.

But Bashore devoted his report to the church's deep divisions over homosexuality. At the national conference, delegates voted 638-337 to maintain the policy that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Scripture."

His 20 years as a bishop have been defined by that fight, said Bashore, who strongly supports the church teaching. But the church needs to do less fighting and more listening, he said.

"It's obvious to me that this needs to be addressed with candor and with love in the name of Jesus Christ," he said.

"I do not think of this subject in any naive fashion, that we will come to any quick agreement. If we did, it would be superficial. We need to enter into conversation and dialogue that will enable us to hear and be open to the personhood of all persons, no matter what their stand on this issue. ... I believe that God still has some revelation for us in this matter facing the church."

Susan Laurie of Edinboro, who received her master of divinity degree from a United Methodist seminary in 1995 but who has not been accepted as a candidate for ordination because she is openly lesbian, expressed gratitude to those who protested with her and to Bashore for his speech.

"It feels like an initial step toward admitting out loud that there are many gay and lesbian United Methodists in this annual conference," she said.

"I think that when the bishop says something, it grants permission for lots of people to go ahead and have conversations with people who may be gay or lesbian or have gay and lesbian relatives."

But the Rev. Dale Shunk, pastor of Westmont United Methodist Church in Johnstown, doubted much good would come from further talk.

"I admire them for their consistency and sincerity, but I don't know if they respect us as much for our sincerity," Shunk said. "We are past dialogue. We have talked for 30 years. ... The central issue is, do you believe in the authority of Scripture or not? They may quote Scripture, but they don't believe it is their authority."

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