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As Methodist meeting in Fort Worth ends, union embodies lingering divisions

FORT WORTH -- Two United Methodist women from Chicago exchanged vows Friday in a park near the Fort Worth Convention Center where this week delegates at an international conference affirmed the church's stance that the practice of homosexuality is not biblical.

With a procession of about 200 supporters, Julie Bruno and Susan Laurie walked from the convention center to General Worth Square, singing This Little Light of Mine. Their ceremony was performed by a lay person from New York, although some clergy were in the crowd and applauded. Audience members also spoke a blessing of the union.

The event symbolized some of the deepest divisions that remain unresolved at the end of the 10-day General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Nearly 1,000 delegates representing more than 11 million people gathered to address denomination concerns and social issues.

Bishop Ben Chamness of the 28-county Central Texas Conference said there was "a great spirit of holy conferencing ... by people with different views."

A new focus

Chamness said amendments were approved that could pave the way for a change, with the United States church moving beyond its "missionary mode" of planting churches in other countries and concentrating more on making them self-sufficient.

"We're trying to put them on equal footing," he said.

A leader of a theologically conservative organization described the gathering as a "a status quo" general conference, with delegates ratifying positions that already exist.

"But a significant thing is the increasingly international composition" of the delegates, said Mark Tooley, executive director of UMAction of The Institute on Religion and Democracy.

He said that because of rapid growth of the United Methodist Church in Africa and the Philippines, the percentage of delegates from outside the United States could grow to about 40 percent by the next international conference in 2012. That is significant, because those areas tend to be more conservative or traditional on social issues than the United States, which for many years had about 70 percent of the church's membership, he said.

Division remains

Debates on social issues during the conference often turned emotional. Ultimately, delegates voted by a wide margin against same-sex unions and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy.

Delegates also voted not to change church policy that gives pastors authority to determine whether a person is ready for membership, although the church welcomes all people to attend and receive sacraments.

This week, officials invited about 300 gay men, lesbians and supporters to walk onto the convention center floor in a peaceful demonstration.

Many present at the women's union Friday afternoon said they were disappointed by some of the decisions regarding the role of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in the church. But they said Friday's ceremony was a sign of hope.

Laurie, 52, and Bruno, 47, have been together for 25 years and are heartened by the support of many people, they said.

"Our faith grounds us; our church family grounds us," Bruno told the crowd.

Key votes

Here's a glimpse of some of the delegates' votes during the 10-day conference, which ended Friday.

Rejected:

66 percent, a measure that would have changed the church's definition of marriage to include same-sex unions.

63 percent, a petition that would have allowed ordination of gay men and lesbians.

Adopted:

60 percent, a resolution opposing homophobia and heterosexism.

96 percent, a resolution against war as incompatible with Jesus' teachings.

97 percent, a resolution calling for immigrants to receive equal opportunity for employment, housing, health care and education.

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