Along the 10th Street sidewalk under the bulk of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, about two dozen Methodists attending the church's General Conference knelt and prayed on May 5, trying to get attendees to change the denomination's decades-old stance against homosexuality. By the next day, an even larger group of Methodists was joined by members of Soulforce, a multi-denominational organization that agitates for the inclusion of gays and lesbians at many religious forums. At 11 that morning, the group stopped the conference meeting, parading past bleachers of delegates and other attendees, singing hymns and carrying signs, some of which commented on the motto the United Methodist Church was using in a series of television commercials: "Open hearts. Open hands. Open minds."
"Open lies," said one sign. "Please open the door all the way," said another.
"We had people in tears," said march participant Rev. Troy Plummer of Chicago, head of Reconciling Ministries Network, which represents congregants and congregations pressing for the Methodists to allow the ordination of gay ministers and the sanctification of gay marriages. But the group was too late to influence dozens of votes that had failed to move the denomination away from a tenet in its Social Principles calling homosexuality "incompatible" with Christianity. Conferees had even defeated a motion that would have codified an agreement to disagree.
"It means that we still have a lot of work to do to become the inclusive church Christ calls it to be," said Plummer. "More than anything it says the church is afraid to move forward. We believe Christ died for all, and we think all means all. We have plenty of hope. Yet our own legislative body is trying to tack down all the places where the Holy Spirit is moving on this issue."
Reconciling Ministries spokesperson Monica Corsaro, who also marched through the hall that morning, said the sight of so many younger Methodists among the marchers bodes well for future church votes. But could prayer and hymns actually influence what is, after all, a parliamentary procedure? "We think it is effective," Corsaro said. "Four years ago the vote was two-thirds no and one-third yes. We keep talking."
Even before marchers disrupted the meeting, there were rumors of a schism proposed by a conservative church faction. They proved true, although no formal proposal ever reached the meeting for a vote. Plummer and Corsaro seemed determine to stick it out and bring the majority to their side.
"It's OK to have different opinions," said Plummer. "You don't split your family. Diversity gives us strength. Once divided, you will immediately have a congregation with divisions -- again. It wouldn't solve the problem."
"You just don't walk away from a relationship," Corsaro said.
But you still can't admit to having one either, if you're a gay Methodist minister. Plummer, who led a Houston, Texas congregation for 13 years, is gay and has a partner of six years. But he can speak about that only because technically he isn't a Methodist minister: He was ordained in a Methodist church by Orthodox Catholics. His own denomination, he lamented, "rejected the possibility that I will be a good pastor. The church has been proven wrong."
Concluded Plummer: "The Holy Spirit finds creative solutions in an oppressive situation."