NEW YORK (AP) â€” Policy-makers for America's third-largest religion, the United Methodist Church, meet Tuesday in Cleveland, where they will make crucial decisions on homosexuality â€” an issue so divisive that there is talk of schism.
Over the past few years, the church has been wracked by disputes over whether and how to stop liberal members of the clergy from presiding at wedding-style ceremonies for gay couples in defiance of Methodist policy.
The church, which has 8.5 million U.S. members and 1.2 million overseas, holds a General Conference every four years, and each session since 1972 has taken up the issue of homosexuality. But observers think this eighth time could be the watershed. The meeting runs through May 12, and most legislative action is expected next week.
``After this General Conference, someone will be leaving the denomination,'' predicted the Rev. Gregory Dell of Chicago's In All Things Charity, who coordinates a coalition that wants Methodism to accept homosexuality and thinks this conference will adopt that view.
Good News magazine, on the opposite side of the issue, sent delegates a video raising the possibility of ``a church split or substantial defection of members, churches and clergy.''
The Rev. James Heidinger, president of the Wilmore, Ky.-based magazine, said many of the 992 delegates ``don't see any resolution on this issue that's tearing away at the fabric of the church. Neither do we.''
A 1968 merger created the United Methodist Church. In 1972, delegates inserted this statement in the faith's Book of Discipline: ``We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.''
Since then, denominational agencies, seminary professors, clergy and local units have worked to remove that language, so far without success.
The 1984 General Conference barred ``self-avowed practicing homosexuals'' in the clergy, and the 1996 session said Methodists cannot conduct ``ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions,'' a policy affirmed as church law in 1998 by the Methodists' high court.
Things escalated in February when a California church tribunal decided to take no action against 68 clergy members who conducted a lesbian union rite last year. Two weeks ago, conservatives filed charges against California Bishop Melvin Talbert, who said local Methodists' commitment to ``inclusiveness and justice'' takes priority over national church law.
While the 68 Californians were acquitted, Dell is on suspension for holding a homosexual ceremony, and Nebraska minister Jimmy Creech was defrocked.
Patricia Miller, executive director of the conservative Confessing Movement, said the California acquittal ``has effectively forced schism in the church'' â€” unless the conference acts decisively to enforce policy.
The Rev. Jeanne Knepper of Affirmation, a Methodist group focusing on gay and bisexual concerns, said it doesn't matter what the conference enacts so long as local units have the power to decide on clergy discipline.
Gay activists plan classes, rallies, worship services and civil disobedience during a May 10 visit of Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, the world leader of Anglican Christians, who favors traditional sexual morals.
The conference will take up 1,900 pieces of legislation in all, including financial and organizational matters. Delegates will consider a policy paper that says the Mormon Church's God differs from that of Christian tradition, and legislation to let disgruntled congregations quit the denomination without losing their property.
The denomination has 36,170 U.S. congregations, at least one in nearly every county.
On the Net: United Methodist Church (official): http://www.umc.org
Confessing Movement: http://www.confessingumc.org
In All Things Charity: http://www.brdwyumc.org/IATC