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Lesbian Testimony Ignites Debate Among Mississippi United MethodistsMark TooleyJune 26, 2009
Mississippi United Methodist Bishop Hope Morgan Ward has ignited controversy after hosting a testimony by a lesbian couple at the Mississippi Annual Conference on June 12. The conference includes 180,000 members and over 1,100 churches.
"The witness was not a challenge to the law of the church in any way," Ward told the Jackson Clarion Ledger. "But it was an invitation for us to live faithfully and lovingly with all people with whom our lives are intertwined, ... people who may be different from ourselves." The debate persuaded Ward to host a series of “dialogues” about the church and homosexuality early in July, to which only clergy, and not laity, are invited.
In a worship service celebrating “diversity,” with Bishop Ward presiding, Renee Sappington, age 38, and Connie Campbell, age 43, shared how they had met at church and became romantically involved after both had “realized we were gay.”
“Over the course of a year, we knew we wanted to spend our lives together,” Campbell told the annual conference. “So we wrote our vows and we went to the church. But since the denomination of which we were members does not condone same-sex unions, we did not go in. Instead we remained in the parking lot. And there, outside the doors of our church, but no less in the presence of God, Renee and I vowed to love, honor and cherish each other till death we do part.”
Their self-administered “marriage” was 11 years ago, and the couple now attend Parkway Hills United Methodist Church in Madison, Mississippi, where they “felt very welcomed.” Sappington said she did not know “how many of the members realize we are gay.” Campbell responded with laughter: “They do now!” Sappington enthused that their Sunday school class “truly treats us as a married couple.” She regretted that “some doors remain closed” and that “we realize that at some churches in this denomination that we would be denied membership. And we also know that were we to say our vows today, we would also be standing outside closed doors.”
The reference to church membership seemed tied to the debate over proposed church constitutional Amendment I, which would require almost automatic church membership for all applicants. The amendment requires two thirds approval by all annual conference voters and appears to be falling short across the church, including the Mississippi Annual Conference, where it was rejected by 72 to 28 percent.
“We have no doubt that God embraces who we are and blesses our relationship, that God’s doors are open even when the churches’ doors sometimes aren’t,” Campbell insisted. She regretted that others had faced “judgment or condemnation” by the church, not “realizing that the church just doesn’t always speak for God.” But Campbell hopes United Methodism will “find the courage to follow His radical example – opening new doors and always showing God’s love to all.”
The speeches by Sappington and Campbell attracted a smattering of applause, with several people standing, while others were silent. "If we'd known what kind of firestorm this would cause, we wouldn't have done it," Campbell told the Jackson Clarion Ledger. "At the same time, I'm kind of thankful that we didn't know, because it's a conversation that might not have happened."
Bishop Ward insisted the response to the lesbian testimony had “been all over the spectrum.” She asserted the “witness was not a challenge to the law of the church in any way” but only was “an invitation for us to live faithfully and lovingly with all people with whom our lives are intertwined, ... people who may be different from ourselves."
In a letter that Bishop Ward later wrote, she said, “Some of our United Methodist community believe that the witness of a lesbian couple in the service was a mistake for which apology should be made. Others give grateful witness to being reminded of those in our midst and beyond who have stories that are intertwined with our own. The pastoral intent of the Friday evening service was an invitation to remember all of the people God loves; including those who have felt hurt or marginalized by our church.”
Ward noted her “responsibility” to “uphold the doctrine, discipline and polity of The United Methodist Church,” and that the “Mississippi Conference has consistently supported the positions on homosexuality stated in The Discipline of The United Methodist Church.” She invited conference clergy to join in “dialogues” on July 1 or July 2 “around this or any other matters that are on your minds and hearts.” In another communication, Ward said, “I will be available in four settings next week to meet with clergy who would like to engage in dialog around this or other matters related to our life together.” She did not mention any meetings for laity. She cited the article about the controversy in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger as describing the “tension in our church and in our world between our commitment to holiness of life and our commitment to hospitality.”
Meanwhile, district superintendents in the Mississippi Conference have sent messages to their clergy. One message, similar to others, described the lesbian testimony as witnessing to the “hurts resulting from the positions taken by our denomination. Now, being hurt does not automatically make one right. But the church does offer a place to hear the hurts of a broken world. I believe that is why the speakers were invited.”
The pastor of Campbell and Sappington’s church, Richard Robbins, told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger about their lesbian testimony: "I've gotten a good bit of positive feedback, and no negative feedback, from the congregation. But I've been disappointed in some ways in the virulence of some of the reactions of others - what I'm seeing posted (on the Internet). It took a lot of courage for these women to lay their life out there the way they have."
Campbell herself told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger: "I don't want to cause the church to suffer. But I didn't say anything I'm ashamed of. I wouldn't begin to compare this to slavery, but you could also argue that the Bible supports slavery. She concluded: "Somebody's got to talk about this. If nobody talked about these issues, we would still be supporting slavery and killing witches."
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