WESTMINSTER -- The Baltimore Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church decided not to take a stand on homosexuality last weekend, opening the way for free discussion on the issue in local congregations.
Faced with whether the conference, made up of congregations from Washington and Baltimore to West Virginia, should take a reconciling or transforming position while minstering to homosexuals, members unanimously voted to adopt neither.
"A key in the debates was that there was a lot of discussion, but not a lot of controversy surfacing," said Dale Flanagan, a reporter with the United Methodist Connection, the denomination newspaper.
The conference met over the weekend at Western Maryland College.
A reconciling church accepts homosexuals as they are. A transforming church seeks to heal them of the "sin" of homosexuality.
"There are basic differences in the assumptions of the Bible, and how these are to be interpreted cannot be resolved at this time," said the Rev. Carlee Hallman, pastor of the Bethesda and Zion United Methodist congregations. One Biblical interpretation is that homosexuality is always a sin, while others feel the statements against same-sex relations are simply characteristic of the time, she said.
"The best course of action is to accept each other in our various ways of thinking as God's children," Hallman said. "The feeling of the churches is a certain joy that there is not going to be this name-calling and carrying on over the different stands."
However, church discipline, which is the law of the denomination, says the practice of homosexuality is not condoned and is not compatible with Christian teachings.
"There is a difference between homosexuality and practice," said Flanagan. "Someone may have a homosexual orientation and choose not to practice it."
For Wesley-Freedom United Methodist Church in Eldersburg, conversation will now begin about how to approach homosexual people, said the pastor, Rev. Marianne Sickles. A specific conference decision would have been premature for churches, like hers, that haven't discussed the issue.
"My role as a pastor is to see that it needs to be raised and talked about more," Sickles said. "One way to deal with it might be in the adult-education program as a class specifically on the topic or a short-term study as one of several issues in a social issues class. The issue may also be raised in sermons."
At St. Paul's United Methodist in New Windsor, on the other hand, business will be as usual since the board already has discussed the issue and church members have discovered their personal position, said the Rev. Charles Acker.
"We don't think we're smart enough to be a transforming church, so we have a very open church and welcome people like this in. The congregation feels that these people should be churched and allowed to participate the same as anyone else."