Holy Split

Put 'em up -- the Methodists are coming to town.

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RCP board member Mary Ann Carlson. - Walter  Novak
RCP board member Mary Ann Carlson.
Everybody knows the devil is in the details. But sometimes emissaries of the Almighty, even rebellious ones, have to toil there, too. So Mary Ann Carlson knows that it takes exactly 548 people, hand-in-hand, to surround the Convention Center in downtown Cleveland.

It's a crucial bit of information -- and there will be plenty more to collect over the next seven weeks. After all, planning an insurgency ain't easy.

"There are a lot of players out there," Carlson says.

Sitting under the watchful eyes of Jesus -- a painting of Him, anyway -- inside the Church of the Redeemer in Cleveland Heights, where she's been a member of the congregation for 13 years, Carlson doesn't look or talk like a revolutionary. There's nary a whiff of confrontation about her. But as one of the leaders of the Reconciling Congregation Program, a national organization that advocates the full participation of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in the United Methodist Church, she can't really avoid it, either.

In early May, nearly 1,000 delegates will arrive in Cleveland for the General Conference of the 8.5-million-member United Methodist Church, the country's second-largest Protestant denomination (behind the Southern Baptist Convention). Held every four years, the conference is the church's top legislative assembly, charged with revising the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist law book.

The convention couldn't come at a more contentious time. Though almost all mainline Protestant denominations in the United States are dealing with intense schisms over the acceptance of homosexuality in their congregations, in no church has the fight been more public or intense than in the United Methodist Church.

"We're probably closer to a split now than we have been in 100 years," says Dr. Ira Gallaway, associate director of The Confessing Movement, a group pushing for the church to adhere to its historic doctrinal identity, which asserts that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teachings." On the other side of the chasm is the Reconciling Congregation Program and other church members who disagree with the United Methodist stand on homosexuality.

Carlson waded into all this 13 years ago, though it was hardly a burning-bush kind of moment. She was raised in Pittsburgh as a Roman Catholic -- a faith she became disenchanted with as a young woman. When she moved to Cleveland Heights, it was to a house across the street from the Church of the Redeemer, a United Methodist church with a long tradition of "doing things differently," as Carlson says. For one thing, the minister at the church, Sally Dick, was a woman.

"Coming from Catholicism, a woman as an ordained minister was really intriguing to me," says Carlson.

That first year, every time she went to church, Carlson cried. "It touched me deeply," she says. "I can't explain why." In a relationship with another woman at the time, she felt comfortable being open about her sexuality with her fellow churchgoers. "We were not the only [homosexual] couple they had seen before," she says.

Carlson had found a home. But nationally, the United Methodists' struggle over homosexuality was becoming more intense, as those who disagreed with the church's opposition became increasingly vocal. A "Committee to Study Homosexuality" was created at the church's 1988 General Conference -- though curiously, it didn't include anyone who was actually homosexual.

In 1992, the General Conference received the report, though it was never formally accepted. The conference did add a provision to the church's Book of Discipline affirming that all persons, "regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation," should have their civil rights ensured.

In the meantime, the Church of the Redeemer was exploring the issue on its own, holding weekly Bible study sessions to explore different perspectives on homosexuality and Methodism. In late 1994, Redeemer asked its members to vote on two issues: whether the church should openly welcome people of all sexual orientations, and whether it should become a "reconciling" congregation, formally joining the Reconciling movement and calling on the General Conference to change the Book of Discipline's stance on homosexuality. The congregation accepted both measures.

Shortly thereafter, Carlson went to a conference for Reconciling Congregation Program churches. A year later, she was asked to be on the Chicago-based organization's board.

The group has been pushing hard to change the language in the Book of Discipline, to allow for a difference of opinion on whether homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings. While it may seem a small measure, it represents a huge doctrinal shift and has become a wedge that some say threatens to undermine the entire foundation of the United Methodist Church.

"Behind this question is the authority of scripture," says Gallaway. "Homosexuality is just the flashpoint."

In recent months, that flashpoint has threatened to erupt into white-hot flames. In November, a Nebraska pastor, Jimmy Creech, was stripped of United Methodist ministerial credentials for officiating at a same-sex union ceremony earlier in the year. And just last month, theologically conservative members of the church were outraged by a United Methodist investigative committee ruling that a group of 67 clergy members from the church's California-Nevada Conference would not be subjected to a church trial for their mass role in a same-sex union service performed in Sacramento last year -- despite the fact that the General Conference explicitly banned such ceremonies in 1996.

Now, groups such as the Confessing Movement are openly wondering whether it's time for the warring factions in the church to form separate denominations. "That may well be the only solution," says Gallaway.

But neither side wants to be the one to split off. "We don't want to separate from the church," says Carlson. That would be contradictory to the Reconciling mission, she says, which is seeking to open doors for more people in the church, not close them.

Despite its divine provenance, nobody is expecting miracles at the conference, inside or out. For her part, Carlson is content to concentrate on the details, making sure RCP's activities go off without a hitch.

"We've never done a witness this large," she says. "It's scary to think that so much of what's going to happen is unknown."

Andrew Putz can be reached at [email protected].

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