United Methodists (search) hugged and wept as they overwhelmingly endorsed church unity Friday, a day after a rift over homosexuality broke wide open with an evangelical proposal to split the denomination.
Choking back emotions, delegates spoke in support of the unity resolution at the end of their national policy meeting, which is held once every four years. The measure passed 869-41, with eight abstentions.
"Our denomination was very clear today. We are going to continue as the United Methodist Church as we know it," said the Rev. John Schol of West Chester, Pa., who organized a group to draft the resolution. "I think we'll come back in four years a stronger denomination."
On Thursday, the Rev. William Hinson, a prominent Methodist pastor and president of the conservative Confessing Movement, startled many General Conference participants by announcing he could no longer endure the dispute over homosexuality that has dragged on since 1972.
He said he had concluded that opposing sides in the debate could never reconcile their views on what the Bible says about gays, so they should divide up the church. The 8.3 million-member denomination is the third-largest in the country.
Hinson said he did not interpret Friday's vote as a repudiation. Conservative leaders plan to spend the next four years building support among local congregations for a schism.
"I know unity is important, but someone said if you sacrifice truth on the altar of unity you lose both," Hinson said.
Several hundred evangelical delegates, who had gathered for their daily breakfast strategy session, gave Hinson a standing ovation Friday when he rose to address them. Scott Field, legislative coordinator for a coalition of evangelicals, said they had been flooded with "thumbs-up e-mails and phone calls" in response to the pastor's speech.
But even conservatives were divided over Hinson's proposal.
The Rev. Maxie Dunnam, a leading evangelical and president of Asbury Theological Seminary (search) in Wilmore, Ky., believed there was still a chance to resolve the dispute over gay issues and more dialogue was needed.
"We shouldn't put emphasis on separation but on talking together on what it is that's keeping the United Methodist Church from being what we say we are," Dunnam said.
The denomination's Social Principles say that gay sex is "incompatible with Christian teaching" and bans ordaining homosexuals. Delegates this week voted to affirm that stand and made conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies a chargeable offense for clergy under church law.
But conservatives contend that advocates for a broader role for gays will continue ordaining them and blessing their unions, in defiance of Methodist rules.
The debate over homosexuality has flared in many Protestant denominations. Conservatives in the Episcopal Church formed a breakaway network of congregations after that denomination consecrated its first openly gay bishop last year.
No Methodist split is imminent. Church law prevents congregations from walking away with Methodist property — and negotiating a breakup would take years.
The idea of splitting clearly disturbed many delegates as they wrapped up their 11-day assembly.
"In the course of our legislative committee and the course of debate on this floor, I've often found myself feeling that I was in a sea of distrust and drowning," said the Rev. Stanley Copeland of Dallas, whose voice wavered as he praised the delegates who drafted the unity resolution. "In the last few minutes, what has happened here to me has been monumental for our church."
The Rev. William McAlilly of Tupelo, Miss., who said he was among many moderates in the church, expressed hope that "those of us in the middle can contain those on both sides of the equation."