TAMPA, Fla.

Despite emotional protests and fierce lobbying from gay rights groups, United Methodists voted on Thursday (May 2) to maintain their denomination’s stance that homosexual acts are “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Two “agree to disagree” proposals were soundly defeated during separate votes by the nearly 1,000 delegates gathered for the United Methodist Church’s General Conference here.

One proposal would have replaced the “incompatible” phrase in the Book of Discipline, which contains the denomination’s laws and doctrines. Both proposals sought to soften the disputed doctrine by adding more ambiguous statements about homosexuality.

Gay rights advocates in the UMC viewed the compromise proposals as the best chance to advance their cause at this year’s General Conference, which convenes every four years. On Friday, delegates are expected to debate the church’s bans on noncelibate gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

With nearly 8 million members in the U.S., the UMC remains the country’s largest mainline Protestant denomination. But United Methodism is shrinking in the U.S. and growing in Africa and Asia, shifting the balance of power to overseas conservatives. Nearly 40 percent of the delegates gathered in Tampa live outside the U.S.

Thursday’s debate put the denomination’s wide diversity on display ― as gays and lesbians pleaded for recognition of their “sacred worth” and an African delegate, speaking through an interpreter, compared homosexuality to bestiality.

The proposals defeated on Thursday would have acknowledged that diversity, but, some conservatives argued, at the cost of muddying traditional doctrines.

One proposal would have changed the Book of Discipline to say that gays and lesbians are “people of sacred worth” and that church members differ about “whether homosexual practices (are) contrary to the will of God.”

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, a pastor in Leawood, Kansas, argued the proposal would “acknowledge our disagreement on a huge issue that is separating churches in North America today.”

That proposal was defeated by a tally of 54-46 percent.

“I see no reason why we should state (in the Book of Discipline) that we disagree,” said the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, former president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. “We disagree on almost every issue we consider.”

The delegates defeated another compromise proposal by an even wider margin: 61 to 39 percent. The resolution would have acknowledged a “limited understanding” of human sexuality and called on the church to “refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices until the Spirit leads us to new insight.”

The Rev. Steve Wendy of Texas argued that the compromise would cause confusion and lead the church to “stumble in our witness.”

“If you look at our largest congregations, and crunch the numbers, they are all reaching young adults successfully,” Wendy said. “And, overwhelmingly, they teach and proclaim God’s truth without compromise.”

But Jennifer Ihlo, a lay delegate from the Baltimore/Washington Conference, argued in favor of the compromise. “I want to be clear that this is not an abstract issue. This is about people who are being harmed by the church and by the use of the ‘incompatibility’ language,” Ihlo said.

“I am a lesbian and a child of God and I strongly urge the body to support this compromise language so that gay youth ... will recognize that the church loves them and God loves them and the violence and pain and suicide will stop.”

After the proposals were defeated on Thursday, gay rights activists flooded the assembly floor and disrupted the session by singing the hymn “What Does the Lord Require of You?”

Indiana Bishop Michael Coyner, chair of the morning session, told the protesters, “I think you’re actually hurting your point.” When the protesters refused to stop singing, Coyner closed the session, sent the delegates to an early lunch and threatened to bar protesters from the convention hall in the afternoon.

Church leaders and the protesters later worked out a compromise, according to United Methodist News Service. On Thursday afternoon, the delegates shifted their attention to clergy pension plans, leaving key votes on gay clergy and same-sex marriage to Friday, the last day of General Conference.

Editor’s note: the following statement was issued after the vote by Michael Adee, executive director of More Light Presbyterians, an organization related to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that advocates for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Presbyterians in the life of the denomination: “My heart broke as I learned that the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to retain the ruling that homosexuality is 'incompatible with Christian teaching.' No person is incompatible with God's creation, love or grace. No person is outside of God's salvation or embrace. Every person is a beloved child of God, created in the image of God and unconditionally loved by God. The truth is that homophobia, like racism or sexism, is incompatible with Christian teaching. Homophobia is an offense to God, God's creation of LGBT persons and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I imagine God's heart broke to see God's own children allowing this harmful ruling to stand. Let us remember that God has the last word. We're all God's children and one human family."