A lesbian couple invited to address the 2009 session of the Mississippi Annual Conference suggested that the United Methodist Church is wrong in refusing to affirm and celebrate homosexual relationships.
One of the women, Dr. Connie Campbell, a faculty member at UM-affiliated Millsaps College, told the gathering, “We have no doubt that God embraces who we are and blesses our relationship.”
The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline states that the UMC “does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” It further states that “sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage” (¶161G).
The two women spoke at a June 12 worship service that was centered around the theme “that the loving touch of Jesus through believers and the church is healing,” according to a summary of the service posted on the Mississippi Conference web site.
“Carol and Ray McNulty, [an interracial] couple, and [homosexual] partners Renee Sappington and Tommie [sic] Campbell, all testified to the healing which comes through churches which open doors by following the example of Jesus, and surround persons with love,” the summary reported.
Retired Mississippi Conference clergyman Don Wildmon, an influential conservative activist and founder of the Tupelo-based American Family Association (AFA), thinks the testimony by Sappington and Campbell at an annual-conference worship service was out of bounds.
On June 16, Mr. Wildmon e-mailed an “open letter to Mississippi United Methodists” arguing that the testimony was aimed at promoting acceptance of same-sex marriage in the UMC.
“They presented their story and told how rejected they felt because their church would not accept their marriage. Their clear intent was to promote homosexual marriage in the United Methodist Church,” Mr. Wildmon wrote.
Here is a shortened version of Ms. Sappington and Dr. Campbell’s remarks (full video posted below):
Renee Sappington: My name is Renee Sappington, and this is my partner Connie Campbell…. [B]ased on the love and support that we experienced growing up, it was easy to know that God loved us unconditionally.
Even so, when we realized we were gay, we each really struggled with it, and we wondered if this was something we needed to give up for God….
Connie Campbell: And it was years later, actually in church, that we met…. We were really in the same place, both of us having come to the point where we realized that being true to God meant being true to ourselves. We didn’t date long at all before I knew that this was the person for me….
Over the course of a year, we knew we wanted to spend our lives together. 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….
[O]utside 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.
Renee Sappington: And, that was 11 years ago…. Around four years ago, we started attending a small study group at Parkway Hills United Methodist Church. We started going to Sunday School and the worship service — and soon realized that we had found what we were looking for.
We joined the church and felt very welcomed…. Our Sunday school class truly treats us as a married couple….
But even as we found so many open doors — and we celebrate them — we are painfully aware that some doors remain closed…. We realize that at some churches in this very denomination 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.
Connie Campbell: ….We are in the church not because of how the church addresses homosexuality but rather in spite of it….
We have no doubt that God embraces who we are and blesses our relationship, that God’s doors are open even when the church’s doors sometimes aren’t. We also know that many others are not so fortunate…. That they are hurting, angry or confused, not realizing that the church just doesn’t always speak for God….
We, on the other hand, choose to hope, believing this church that we are a part of — a church whose faith is founded in the life and death of Jesus, in His teachings and His promises — this church will find the courage to follow His radical example: opening new doors and always showing God’s love to all.
(Note: The applause at the beginning of the
excerpt is in response to the previous speakers.)
The Rev. Buddy Smith, associate pastor the Mississippi Conference’s Tremont Charge (and executive assistant to Don Wildmon at AFA), thinks giving the lesbian couple a platform from which to argue for acceptance of homosexual relationships was clearly inappropriate — not only because embracing homosexuality runs counter to historic Christian teaching, but also because the congregation included children and youth.
“These testimonies [were] an assault on biblical truth about human sexuality and a shameless promotion of homosexual ‘marriage,'” Mr. Smith wrote in a June 20 posting on his blog. “There were young people present when [Ms. Sappington and Dr. Campbell] were given a platform to promote a lifestyle that the Bible clearly condemns as sinful behavior.”
In answer to critics Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, episcopal leader of the Mississippi Conference, insists that the couple’s testimony was not a challenge to official church teaching.
“The witness was not a challenge to the law of the church in any way,” she said in a report published in The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. “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.”
In a “pastoral letter” issued in response to concerns, Bishop Ward said she is committed to upholding UM teaching. “As your bishop, I have been given responsibility to uphold the doctrine, discipline and polity of The United Methodist Church,” she wrote. “This is a responsibility I remember and embrace in this instance and in every instance.”
The bishop, in response to feedback about the appropriateness of the homosexual couple’s testimony, has “invite[d] clergy and lay members to a ‘dialogue’ on the issue sometime in early July,” the Clarion-Ledger reported.
In addition to its declaration that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” the United Methodist Church officially “support[s] laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman” (¶161B—Book of Discipline 2008).
That provision was added to the UM Book of Discipline in 2004 as the result of a 624-to-184 vote of the General Conference.