Film, panel discussion highlight church's debate over homosexuality

Church Divided screening
The CIR and KQED documentary "A Church Divided" plays during a screening at the Delancey Street Theater in San Francisco.

Credit: Marie McIntosh/Center for Investigative Reporting

Is the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” as the United Methodist Church’s doctrine states? Delegates from across the globe gathered in Tampa, Fla., last April to debate the issue, and the Center for Investigative Reporting was there to capture the conversation. You can see the debate play out in a new documentary from CIR, in collaboration with KQED, called, “A Church Divided.”

The film explores this contentious topic from both sides of the metaphorical aisle, featuring interviews and commentary from progressive church leaders, traditionalists and evangelicals, as well as professors of divinity and lay members of the church. 

About 50 people gathered this week at the Delancey Street Theater in San Francisco to screen the film and participate in a panel discussion led by KQED's Scott Shafer. CIR reporter Matt Smith and producer Adi Sambamurthy joined Pastor Karen Oliveto of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church and Randall Miller, an assistant professor at Berkeley's Pacific School of Religion. (You can listen an audio recording of the discussion at the bottom of this post.)

The audience's questions during the panel helped provide context to the more progressive position of church members like Miller and Oliveto, but conservative members who were invited to join the panel eventually declined to participate.

The film also shows the level of politicking needed to change the church's doctrine – Miller compared it to government bureaucracy. 

“This is like the U.S. Congress.” Miller said. “Good feelings won't do it. We have to organize delegates who vote.”

He and Oliveto gathered extensive data before delegates voted in April, to size up the opposition to their stance. Part of the conversation at that meeting focused on the more conservative-leaning delegates from Africa. Outspoken against the acceptance of homosexuality within the faith, this group of delegates ultimately became the swing vote that defeated the proposed changes to the doctrine for which Oliveto and Miller campaigned.

Oliveto argues that this is because the more evangelical church leaders are working harder to “export their homophobia.” She said progressive members of the United Methodist Church “haven't extended enough love” to their fellow Methodists across the globe.

“I don’t think we are spending enough time building relationships ... just meeting people where they are, learning their lives, with them learning our lives,” she said.  Oliveto said she believes that is the key to changing minds on the issue.

Miller also compared this period in the faith's history to past major disputes over abolishing slavery in the United States and the ordination of women as members of Methodist clergy.

Where do you fall on the issue of homosexuality in your church? Let us know how you navigate this question in the comments, or you can always send me an email – We'll follow up with interesting perspectives.

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