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New England Methodists to Defy Church's Gay Policy
from The Plain Dealer, June 10, 2000
By: Kevin Eckstrom

A month after the United Methodist Church voted to uphold its policies against same-sex unions and gay ordination, the church’s New England conference is leading a backlash of open defiance against the controversial stands.

Meeting in Massachusetts last week, more than 300 delegates to the New England Annual Conference signed the “New England Declaration,” promising to conduct same-sex union ceremonies and welcome gays and lesbians in ordination to ministry.

Although the declaration did not face an up-or-down vote, the document received overwhelming support from delegates. It signals the first major attempt to push the limits on the church’s policies on homosexuality.

The United Methodist Church - the nation’s second-largest Protestant body with 8.4 million members - met last month in Cleveland in an emotionally wrenching convention that saw more than 200 people arrested in protest of the church’s policies.

By roughly 2-to-1 margins, delegates voted to continue the bans on same-sex ceremonies and gay ordination, and to retain a statement in the church’s Book of Discipline calling the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

While church leaders tried to put the best face on the rocky General Conference meeting, the New England declaration counters that “any pretense that we are of one mind only serves to deepen the estrangement and isolation of those who are excluded.”

The declaration promises that clergy and lay leaders will preach acceptance for homosexuality from the pulpit and in Sunday school. It also says pastors will “enable all couples to celebrate rites of union, regardless of gender” and will “affirm God’s call to ordained ministry as experienced by candidates for ministry regardless of a person’s sexual orientation.”

All this puts New England's Bishop Susan Hassinger in an awkward position. As a bishop, she pledged to uphold church law and file charges against pastors who openly defy it. Yet as a supporter of gays and lesbians, Hassinger last year led her churches to become a “reconciling conference” open to gays and lesbians.

Does the New England declaration mean Hassinger will not prosecute renegade clergy? Or does it mean Hassinger will herself bless same-sex ceremonies?

Hassinger isn’t saying. “I don’t deal in hypotheticals" Bid Hassinger, who has led New England’s 571 Methodist congregations since 1996. “I have taken a vow to follow the Discipline [church law].”

Still, the Rev. Mike Hickcox, the conference’s communications director, conceded that Hassinger may not be able to maintain that position indefinitely.

"The reality is that hypotheticals will become real before too long,” Hickcox said.

Supporters of the declaration said they have already received calls from other regional conferences seeking to borrow the language and vote on it themselves. Pro-gay leaders said the declaration signals four rocky years until the church meets again in 2004. “

The 33 percent [who opposed the votes in Cleveland] is very strong and they do not in any way agree with the other 66 percent, and they will be motivated by their own faith commitment and convictions to do no other than to make these statements and defy the rules of General Conference,” said Marilyn Alexander, interim director of the Reconciling Congregation Program.

Those who drafted the declaration said the Cleveland convention left them feeling"devastated" and “demolished.” Delegates started talking through e-mail, and by the time the New England conference met, a statement had been drafted.