Methodists are among the last mainline Protestant holdouts on the topic of homosexuality. Karen Oliveto, pastor of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, is bound and determined to change that at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla., just steps away from the site of the Republican National Convention. Similar to a political convention, the question of whether homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching will be the subject of intense lobbying, heated debate, close committee votes and, if Oliveto and the progressive faction are successful, a decision on the convention floor.
But the conservatives, bolstered by large and rapidly growing Methodist congregations in Africa, are just as determined – and they believe they have the Old Testament on their side. The two factions are destined for a showdown at the convention. This is the story of what happened.
Song: You will sow what you reap, reap what you sow, what you plant in the kingdom will surely grow.
Randall Miller (voice-over): As an openly gay man, it causes a significant amount of personal pain for me, when the church that I love says that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
It’s just fundamentally unfair and untrue.
Song: And the fruit of the spirit will come back to you.
Richard Thompson (voice-over): We wonder why these people keep banging on the doors, keep pushing us and pushing us, trying to back us into a corner.
Song: What you plant in the kingdom will surely grow, and when you go with love.
Karen Oliveto (voice-over): I think every time we go, we hope that this will be the year. You wanna believe that people will do the right thing. You wanna believe that of course the church will step up.
Reporter Adithya Sambamurthy: San Francisco Rev. Karen Oliveto, divinity professor Randall Miller and Bakersfield Rev. Richard Thompson are heading toward a showdown.
They will join United Methodists from around the world for a convention in Tampa, Fla., where the church will decide whether it still holds that homosexuality is a sin.
[On-screen text: THE OTHER CONVENTION
A Church Votes on Gay Rights]
Song: Do not pass me by.
[On-screen text: Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, San Francisco]
Reporter: It’s Easter Sunday at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, and the Rev. Karen Oliveto takes the stage in front of a full house.
Song: Savior, savior.
Oliveto (voice-over): For almost 50 years, this church has been a place of unconditional love and unconditional acceptance.
Song: Give my love for Christ.
Reporter: Oliveto counts an unusual mix of churchgoers among her charges.
Oliveto (voice-over): Gay, lesbian, large trans population.
[On-screen text: The Rev. Karen Oliveto, Glide United Memorial Methodist Church]
Oliveto: People of different colors and ethnicities, people of different faith backgrounds. It is powerful to be here on a Sunday morning and see that diversity lived out so boldly.
Welcome to Glide. Happy Easter.
Reporter: At the convention in Tampa, she will join a national network of progressive Methodists to lobby for a change in church doctrine on homosexuality.
[On-screen text: First United Methodist Church, Bakersfield, Calif.]
But the progressives will face opposition from a coalition of conservative evangelical Methodists.
Song: Lift high the cross.
Reporter: At First United Methodist Church in Bakersfield, the Rev. Richard Thompson leads the Sunday morning service.
Song: Let all the world adore his sacred name.
Thompson (voice-over): Homosexual people are to be loved; they’re our brothers and sisters.
[On-screen text: The Rev. Richard Thompson, First United Methodist Church]
Thompson: But the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and has been for 2,000 years.
Reporter: Thompson is a member of the evangelical group Good News, which is leading the campaign to retain the church’s doctrine toward gays and lesbians.
Thompson (voice-over): If the church loses its doctrine, it can no longer bring salvation.
Because without the doctrine, you don’t have a foundation to stand on. And if you want to say that all things are OK, then it doesn’t matter.
Thompson: Christ has risen, he has risen indeed. Amen.
Reporter: While conservative Methodists like Richard Thompson argue that the church’s stance on homosexuality is necessary for its survival, that belief is being challenged not just in progressive churches, but even in some divinity schools.
[On-screen text: Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, Calif.]
Miller: The story of Sodom is often used as a key text.
Reporter: Randall Miller teaches at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.
Miller: And the reason why it’s not a story about homosexuality as we understand it is that the folks in the story are heterosexual men.
Miller (voice-over): I teach the introduction to Christian Ethics class.
[On-screen text: Randall Miller, assistant professor, Pacific School of Religion]
Miller: And one of the fundamental issues we talk about is human sexuality.
How is it that the Jesus movement became transformed into the church as sex police?
Miller (voice-over): Most of them know that the issue of gay and lesbian inclusion is an ongoing issue in most churches, in most denominations.
And it is one of the sharpest conflicts that they will probably ever be engaged in.
Reporter: He believes the church can embrace homosexuality without losing its way.
Miller: In the Christian tradition there is only one God, and so obviously, God did create Adam and Eve and Adam and Steve.
Reporter: This theological dispute dividing United Methodists will come to a head in Tampa, when both sides clash at the convention.
[On-screen text: Tampa, Fla. April 2012]
Bishop Richard King Jr.: We invite in English, invite in Spanish.
Reporter: The Tampa convention center is teeming with United Methodists.
King: Invite in sign language. Invite in Swahili.
Reporter: Nearly a thousand elected delegates are here, representing Methodist congregations from across the country and around the world.
King: Everyone, come one, come all.
Reporter: Over the next 10 days, they will debate and vote on church policy toward homosexuals.
Miller: It’s like a legislative assembly. Delegates like myself, we each have one vote, and we try and sort of build the necessary number of votes to get a policy passed.
Reporter: If this looks like a political convention, then that’s no accident. The Republicans would later hold their national convention right next door.
Reporter: Among the observers watching the delegates from the bleachers is Bakersfield pastor Richard Thompson. He is joined by Lambrecht, who heads the conservative lobbying effort.
Lambrecht (voice-over): There are so many different groups and perspectives within the United Methodist Church that it’s very difficult for us to have a common identity.
[On-screen text: The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager, Good News]
Lambrecht: And so there’s kind of a wrestling going on between the various groups who believe that their particular view is the way we should be.
Reporter: Across the street, the Rev. Karen Oliveto joins progressive Methodists from around the country who are here to change the church’s stance on homosexuality.
Oliveto (voice-over): We have spent time really breaking down every delegate: Are they clergy, lay, male, female, LGBT or straight? I’ll be working with volunteers to help strategize.
Reporter: Both sides are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to influence elected delegates. But the wildcards in this vote are the new delegates from Africa, where the Methodist Church is gaining most of its new converts. Of the nearly 1,000 convention delegates, roughly one-third are from Africa. They will play a critical role in making any changes to church doctrine.
But before the petition on homosexuality makes it to the convention floor, it must first pass two committees. This is the story of what happens on the convention floor, and behind closed doors.
Reporter: What divinity professor Randall Miller and his allies hope to do is to revoke the passage in church doctrine declaring that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The process is like passing a bill in Congress. The first step is a vote in the subcommittee.
Miller: I chose to be assigned to Church and Society B, which is the one that handles human sexuality issues. I’ll be working with a group of delegates who want to repeal that passage. And then there’ll be people who are solid opponents.
[On-screen text: The Rev. John Miles Jr., clergy delegate, Arkansas]
Miles: I don’t see my ideas or views on homosexuality changing.
Miller (voice-over): They’ll be working hard to defeat any legislation that would repeal the church’s opposition to homosexuality.
[On-screen text: Andy Turner Arant, lay delegate, Mississippi]
Arant: Every Sunday, I go to Communion service and ask the Lord to forgive me for my sins.
Reporter: The Evangelicals in the room argue that the church’s position on homosexuality is true to the Bible, and that God loves the sinner but hates the sin.
Arant: And if we want the pathway to heaven, we must repent of the things that we do, that the Bible tells us is wrong.
[On-screen text: Amory Peck, lay delegate, Pacific Northwest]
Peck: Repent? No, I’m not going to repent.
Reporter: The progressives in the room respond with personal stories from gay and lesbian delegates.
Peck: Makes me very sad when I hear some of you though say, ‘You know I love you, I love you, I love you, but what you and Linda have is wrong.’ And when I hear that, I hear you saying that what you do in the bedroom is wrong. I hear you saying that it also must be wrong then that we own a home and cut the grass and buy the groceries and bring them home – that everything that goes into making up what she and I have is wrong for some of you.
It’s fine with me, if you want to hold my relationship to high standards. I think we should hold all relationships to high standards. I just don’t want you to tell me that I can’t have one.
[On-screen text: Richard Hearne, lay delegate, north Texas]
Hearne: Amory, I do love you. And you’re responsible for me changing where I am, where I was, to where I am today. And I’m basically a conservative theological person. We have got to change this discipline take out this harmful, harmful language.
Reporter: After a lengthy debate, the delegates vote by paper ballot. For the petition to advance to the next stage, a majority of the delegates will need to vote for it.
[On-screen text: Andrew Ponder Williams, lay delegate, Missouri]
Williams: I do have the results of this ballot. The petition has passed: 14 votes in favor of removing the language, 12 votes opposed and one abstention.
Let us pray. Dear God, be with us as we discuss.
Reporter: It’s the first time that a petition to repeal church doctrine on homosexuality has passed this committee – an early indication that the progressive coalition could actually succeed.
From the crowd: Amen.
Reporter: The progressive camp celebrates.
Down the street at the evangelical coalition’s headquarters, Tom Lambrecht receives news of the vote.
Karen Booth: So the subcommittee very close vote 14 to 12 was to take out the restrictive language.
Lambrecht (voice-over): We believe that what we’re talking about in homosexuality is a behavior. We all have attractions and desires to do certain things that are contrary to the will of God.
To give into those desires doesn’t mean that we are created that way. It just means that we have desires that are contrary to the will of God. We are then called as Christians to understand and to resist those desires.
Reporter: The issue now goes before a full committee of 87 delegates. If adopted, it will then make its way to the floor of the convention.
Miller: We decided to take a principled but high-stakes approach to just delete the foundational statement about the incompatibility of homosexuality and Christian teaching from our Book of Discipline.
From the crowd: Is there discussion?
[On-screen text: The Rev. Gregory Gross, clergy delegate, northern Illinois]
Gross: I rise to speak in favor of this petition. Each day I meet with young people, teenagers, who they’ve come to their parents and they’ve said I think I might be gay. Hear me, I think I might be, not that I am, I might be.
And what has happened is, their parents have turned them out of their home. When they were 16, 15, 14, and now they’re living on the street. And then what happens is after several years they end up in my office, because now they are testing positive for HIV.
This language does harm because when I talk with the parents, and I ask them why, why did you turn them out? They say, it is because my faith tells me I can’t allow this under my roof. I ask you to vote for this.
Reporter: But then the African delegates begin to weigh in.
[On-screen text: Marie-Louise Kpokpo, lay delegate, Ivory Coast]
Kpokpo: The word homosexuality is incompatible to the Scriptures. Incompatible to the Christian faith. That’s why if the church encourages this, this would be the death of the church itself.
Reporter: They refer to Scripture.
Kpokpo: The Bible talks about the family of Abraham, Isaac always family. And when we talk about family we see a man and a woman. Never woman and woman, never a man and man. That’s not family. Thank you.
Reporter: And they warn of the impact on their congregations if there is a change in church doctrine.
[On-screen text: Mwenda Tunda, lay delegate, South West Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo]
Tunda: And when we came here, members of our churches told us that when you go to the general conference, if the vote on homosexuality passes then we are going to leave the church.
Miller (voice-over): Many of the folks from the countries of Africa are more culturally conservative around issues of human sexuality, including the acceptance of gays and lesbian people, and so there’s a bit of an uphill climb for us.
Reporter: After more than an hour of discussion, it’s time to decide.
The Rev. Molly Vetter (voice-over): Now is the time to vote. Please write yes on your ballot if you support this petition. Please write no if you oppose this petition. Are there any ballots that have not been collected? All right, I declare this ballot then closed.
I do have a report on the petition. It was not supported by a vote of 34 in favor and 43 against. We stand in recess until 1:30.
Reporter: This time, the conservative African vote was the deciding factor. For the progressives, it means their quest to delete the church’s stance against homosexuality has failed. It’s a painful setback.
Song: I am open, and I am willing, for to be hopeless would seem so strange. It dishonors those who go before us so we keep on to light of change.
Reporter: Immediately, leaders of the progressive coalition meet to assess their situation.
Oliveto: It’s been disastrous. I mean it’s just been bam, bam bam.
Reporter: With time running out, they switch to plan B. They decide to support a compromise petition that states the church agrees to disagree on homosexuality.
But the conservative evangelical lobbyists are in no mood to compromise. They host a breakfast at their headquarters to urge the delegates to remain strong in defending the church’s doctrine.
Thompson: Right this way, gentlemen. You’ve come to the right place for breakfast.
Lambrecht: This morning we would like to spend just a little bit of time speaking about the issue of homosexuality. And here to help us with that is Rev. Karen Booth, director of Transforming Congregations.
[On-screen text: Karen Booth, director, Transforming Congregations]
Booth: I found myself listening intently to the openly gay and lesbian delegates and responding with strong emotion to their stories of personal hurt and frustration with what they believe are the hurtful policies of our church.
My guess is that there may be some of you out here at breakfast this morning who are wrestling with similar feelings. And some of you might consider supporting proposals that appear to achieve common ground.
But friends, third-way proposals have major shortcomings. When all positions regarding sexual ethics are equally valid, the historic Christian teaching that affirms God’s good gift of sexual intimacy only within the context of monogamous, heterosexual marriage is undermined and effectively set aside.
A church that systematically refuses to choose between truth and error has no place left to stand. May God prevent the United Methodist Church from ever becoming such a denomination. Amen.
Reporter: The floor of the convention center fills up with nearly a thousand delegates representing United Methodist congregations from around the world. Together, they will vote on the compromise.
Vetter: Good morning, bishop, general conference, visitors and volunteers. It’s time to turn in our discussion to an issue that matters to many of you here in our church and in our world. James Howell at microphone six will introduce it.
[On-screen text: The Rev. James Howell, clergy delegate, western North Carolina]
Howell: Many people feel like we need to take a strong stand against homosexuality, and many people feel that we need to be totally inclusive. But what we want doesn’t matter, what matters is God’s will, and let me suggest that it is perhaps God’s will that we tell the truth, that we disagree.
We have said for a long time that we do not condone homosexuality, but they are here, they are in our delegations, they are serving in our churches. They keep coming back to a church that says no to them. There’s a kind of miracle in that. There’s a kind of grace in that.
Now in a few minutes, we are going to take a vote, and voting is about power. And what we all know is that there are a lot of power plays going on at this conference. There’s backroom maneuvering and manipulation.
Let’s be very clear that Jesus never did anything because of some backroom manipulation. Let us vote for what is God’s will – that is that we disagree. Thank you.
[On-screen text: Bishop Tom Bickerton, western Pennsylvania]
Bickerton: All right, friends. We’ve had a long and good debate, let us prepare to vote. Take your keypads. If you would support the motion, please press one. If you are not in support of the motion, please press two. Please vote now. Five seconds. And the voting is closed.
And you have not supported the motion. Thank you.
Reporter: Four years ago, the vote was close. This time it wasn’t. The progressives lost in a landslide, with the African delegates making the difference.
Conservative Methodists breathed a sigh of relief.
Thompson: I’m glad that the church retained its current language, which I think is fair and compassionate and understanding. And, um, and it’s a good position for the church to be in. We do face a changing cultural climate in America concerning this, but of course the church has never allowed the cultural climate or a segment of the culture to determine what our basic beliefs are.
Reporter: But the progressives are frustrated and angry.
Bickerton: Friends, we are going to be moving towards a break (whistling). Let’s be in order please.
Reporter: Having lost the vote, progressive delegates and their allies protest and shut down the session.
Song: Let us break bread together on our knees.
Miller: I know there are lots of folks out there who say why are we wasting any time with religious institutions who don’t want us. And my response is that 60 percent of gay and lesbian people claim some religious affiliation, and mostly Christian, despite everything that’s happened.
Reporter: Before leaving their Tampa convention, progressives gathered once more and vowed to continue fighting for gay rights within and outside the church.
Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert urged them on.
[On-screen text: Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, Northern California-Nevada]
Talbert: I declare to you that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience.
Reporter: Talk of schism is now spreading within the denomination.
Six weeks after leaving Tampa, church leaders in New York and Northern California passed resolutions to consider abandoning United Methodism.
Song: Our God is an awesome God.
Reporter: At the same time, the society at large continues to be divided over gay rights.
Just four days after the Tampa convention, voters in North Carolina passed a ban on same-sex unions. The next day, President Barack Obama announced his support for gay marriage.
The church will hold its next convention in 2016.
Producers: Adithya Sambamurthy, Matt Smith
Camera: Adithya Sambamurthy
Sound: Michael Barnitt, Adithya Sambamurthy
Editor: Adithya Sambamurthy
Supervising editor: David Ritsher
Senior producer: Steve Talbot
Senior editor: Amy Pyle
Copy editors: Christine Lee, Nikki Frick
Executive producer: Sharon Tiller
Editorial director: Mark Katches
Stock footage provided by United Methodist Communications
Archive images provided by Ken Blevins/StarNews Media, Getty Images
Correction: A previous version of this transcript misidentified the Rev. Molly Vetter.