KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) - Thousands of United Methodists in East Tennessee have been praying recently for the unity of their church. A critical vote that theologians say could split the church is just three weeks away. It has to do with the decades-long struggle with issues concerning human sexuality. The issue has been debated since 1972.
The United Methodist Church has called a special session of the General Conference, the church's top policymaking body. The gathering of Methodists around the world will be in St. Louis, Missouri, beginning on February 23. The purpose is to act on a report from the Council of Bishops examining paragraphs in the church's book of discipline concerning human sexuality. They will determine if the wording in the church's rule book should be changed or remain the same.
Rev. Wil Cantrell spoke to members of Fountain City United Methodist Church last month. Cantrell has visited nearly three dozens Methodist church groups since last fall discussing the upcoming vote. The issue is core language in the church's Book of Discipline concerning homosexuality and the clergy. The book is the church's policy and procedures manual.
The language says:
The "practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained as ministers. And ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by Methodist ministers or in Methodist churches."
"This has been the most intense and difficult debate we've had within United Methodism since the debate over slavery,"said Cantrell.
United Methodist Bishop Karen Oliveto from Colorado is one who challenged the boundaries of the Book of Discipline. Bishop Oliveto is a married lesbian and is the church's first openly LGBTQ bishop.
The controversy surrounding the issue nearly split United Methodists three years ago at a gathering of the church's worldwide General Conference in Portland, Oregon.
"It's been heart-wrenching. We've had protests. We've had arrests. We have people who fell like they have been abused and hurt by the church. We've had people who felt like their voice and the traditional ideas of the church have been neglected,"Cantrell said.
Cantrell says the church called "time out" from the controversy of 2016 and decided to confront the issue. So last year, the United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops, in an effort to resolve the church's internal tensions, developed three plans that will be debated and voted on in St. Louis.
One of the three options is called the Traditional Plan. It would affirm the current language about homosexuality in the church's policy manual, the Book of Discipline.
"The traditional plan keeps most of the language in our Book of Discipline and it strengthens that language. So that if you were to perform a same-sex wedding as a pastor, rather than perhaps not being punished at all in certain sections of the country, there would be mandatory punishment,"Cantrell said.
Another option is the One Church Plan. It would remove some of the language that limits LGBTQ people's involvement as United Methodists.
"It would allow local churches to decide whether to host those weddings on their property. And it would give pastors the freedom to decide whether they would perform such weddings. It would also allow local churches to decide whether they would be open to receiving an LGBTQ person as their pastor if they were in a region where those people were ordained,"said Cantrell.
The third option is the Connectional Conference Plan. It would create three conferences based on each conference's perspective of LGBTQ issues.
"So you would have a more traditionalist or conservative denomination, you would have a more progressing or liberal denomination, and then you have a more centrist or moderate denomination,"Cantrell said.
The Council of Bishops has endorsed the One Church Plan.
"They do not believe this is what I think they would call a church-defining issue, that this is not an issue that should split the church. So they want to see a way for us to be churched together,"said Cantrell.
Twelve people from East Tennessee will be among 864 delegates voting in St. Louis. Half of the delegates are clergy, and the other half laity. For several months now these delegates have been listening to local Methodists expressing their opinions about the options that will direct the church in the future.
Several groups will argue their points of view in St. Louis. The conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association supports the ban on same-sex unions and gay clergy, saying the church's position and teaching on homosexuality is biblical. A centrist group called Uniting Methodists will argue the difference should not define the church. The progressive group called Reconciling Ministries Network will seek full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in all aspects of church life.
The Council of Bishops has scheduled a day of prayer on February 23.