NEW YORK -- Bishops of the United Methodist Church staked out their position on the long-simmering controversy in their church over the question of homosexuality in a statement issued last week at their semiannual meeting.
Calling the homosexual issue "this volatile and controversial issue facing our church and society," the bishops called on all United Methodists to "join with us in being faithful to the standards, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, which have been adopted through the struggles of our covenant community of faith over the years."
Three denominational boards have urged the church's quadrennial General Conference next year to remove from the church's Book of Discipline language that says homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity and a barrier to ordination to the ministry.
The Board of Discipleship's directors requested the General Conference to amend current church law that prohibits funding for projects "promoting" homosexuality or for educational programs related to gay and lesbian Methodists.
The directors of the Board of Church and Society have recommended deleting the provision in the denomination's Social Principles, saying that homosexuality "is incompatible with Christian teaching." A similar request has been lodged by the Methodist Federation for Social Action, an independent caucus within United Methodism.
The Board of Higher Education and Ministry has called for overturning the 1984 ban on ordination of self-avowed gay and lesbian clergy.
James V. Heidinger, editor of the evangelical publication Good News, and a foe of easing the church's stand on homosexuality, said an relaxation of the church ban on ordaining homosexuals would "produce disastrous results in terms of continuing membership losses."
However, E. Dale Dunlap, a faculty member of St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, said the church's present posture on the issue "is largely the result of cultural and social conditioning, rather than being biblically and theologically informed."
He said the denomination's condemnation of homosexuality in 1972 was passed with little or no "biblical or theological preparation." He said a major reason the condemnation was passed was that "without it, we would lose a great number of members to the Southern Baptists."
The Rev. Morris Floyd, a national spokesman for Affirmation, a gay and lesbian caucus within United Methodism, said the proposals of the denominational boards "add to what is a growing chorus of voices in the church, saying that its positions on homosexuality need serious reexamination."
He said that current church law and principles on homosexuality "are not defensible from a responsible theological position." He called for the church to develop a "more theologically coherent approach to sexuality" and lauded the board proposals as one more sign of "slow but sure progress."
Bishop Earl G. Hunt of Lakeland, Fla., president of the bishops' council, told the bishops that their statement could help assure the church that "we will never surrender to the pressures of articulate and persistent groups who propose to write a new chapter for Christian sexual ethics quite apart from the total impact of Scripture and ecclesiastical history."