For decades, United Methodists managed to live together in semi-peace by using a simple plan -- they lived in different places. This allowed them to ordain pastors and elect bishops who took radically different approaches to doctrine and church law.
This was explained, back in the mid-1980s, in a prophetic study called "The Seven Churches of Methodism." The bottom line: It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the "Yankee Church," "Industrial Northeast Church," "Western Church" and "Midwest Church" with those in the "Church South" and the "Southwest Church."
The cutting-edge on the progressive future was found in Denver, in the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference and the Iliff School of Theology. If would-be United Methodist pastors disagreed with the church they could go West, and many did. In the late-1980s, a gay youth minister at Iliff told me (I was at The Rocky Mountain News) that she estimated 40 percent of the student body, perhaps even 50 percent, was gay.
This reality first hit the headlines in 1980 when Denver Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., announced that he was openly rejecting church teachings that homosexual acts were “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Soon, he appointed an openly gay pastor to a Denver church. When challenged, Wheatley declared: “Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God’s grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin.”
All of this is highly relevant to understanding the tensions laid out in that New York Times piece that ran with this headline: "Methodist High Court Rejects First Openly Gay Bishop’s Consecration."
But before we get there, we need to look at one other detail in the early Denver cases that remains important for reporters who want to do accurate coverage of the UMC debates in the here and now.
That Denver pastor survived in ministry, in part, because the church law opposed the appointment of “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. Thus, when appearing before church officials, he simply declined to answer questions about his sexual history or practice. He was, therefore, not “self-avowed” -- at least not during official church meetings. Sympathetic leaders in the West declared that he was not in violation of the larger church’s doctrinal standards. It didn't matter what the man said in newspaper interviews.