Conservative Christians Just Retook the United Methodist Church
The United Methodist Church has fractured over the role of LGBTQ people in the denomination. At a special conference in St. Louis this week, convened specifically to address divisions over LGBTQ issues, members voted to toughen prohibitions on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy. This was a surprise: The denomination’s bishops, its top clergy, pushed hard for a resolution that would have allowed local congregations, conferences, and clergy to make their own choices about conducting same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ pastors. This proposal, called the “One Church Plan,” was designed to keep the denomination together. Methodist delegates rejected its recommendations, instead choosing the so-called Traditional Plan, which affirmed the denomination’s teachings against homosexuality.
This is a consequential vote for the future of the United Methodist Church: Many progressive churches will now almost certainly consider leaving the denomination. It’s also a reminder that many Christian denominations, including mainline groups such as the UMC, are still deeply divided over questions of sexuality and gender identity. While the UMC in the United States is roughly evenly divided between those who identify as traditionalists and those who identify as moderates and liberals, it is also a global organization. Many of the growing communities in the Philippines or countries in Africa are committed to theological teachings against same-sex relationships and marriages.
Self-described traditionalists in the United Methodist Church got the outcome they’ve been fighting for. Still, “I think there’s a lot of grief on all sides,” said Keith Boyette, the head of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and a main proponent of the Traditional Plan, in an interview on Tuesday. Methodists are in mourning for a United Methodist Church that might be on the brink of a mass exodus.
For years, LGBTQ Methodists, clergy, and their supporters have argued that people of all sexual orientations and gender identities should be fully included in the denomination as leaders, and that their families should be recognized. “As someone who has grown up in our Church, as someone who is gay and goes to one of the least religious colleges in the U.S., my evangelism on campus has grown,” said J. J. Warren, a senior at Sarah Lawrence College who hopes to become a Methodist pastor, during the conference on Tuesday. “We have brought people to Jesus … They did not know God could love them, because their churches said God didn’t … If we could be a Church that brings Jesus to people who are told can’t be loved, that’s what I want our Church to be.”
Others in the denomination, however, see LGBTQ issues as a proxy for bigger divisions over biblical teachings. “This is not a political or social kind of difference. It is primarily, for us, a theological difference, and the truth that the Church has been raised up to share,” Boyette said. “When a Church begins to fracture around its compliance with its doctrine and ethics and discipline, it becomes a house divided. It becomes dysfunctional.”
According to its Book of Discipline, the denomination’s collection of laws and doctrines, Methodist pastors are not allowed to conduct same-sex weddings, and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained. In practice, however, a number of Methodist clergy and churches have made clear that they disagree with this teaching, at times openly defying it. A lesbian pastor, Karen Oliveto, was even elected a bishop in the Church , a position she still holds even though the denomination’s judicial council later ruled that her marriage to a woman violated Church doctrine. At the same time, other churches remain deeply committed to UMC teachings against same-sex marriage and relationships.
The United Methodist Church, which was formed in a 1968 merger between two denominations, has known for a long time that it would eventually have to address these deeply felt disagreements over LGBTQ issues. At the denomination’s 2016 General Conference, delegates asked UMC bishops to produce recommendations for how the Church should resolve divisions over LGBTQ issues. Over the next three years, Methodist leaders developed the One Church Plan, which would have allowed local pastors and regional conferences to make their own decisions, keeping the denomination together but allowing for diversity in its ranks.
Lead image: Delegates at the United Methodist Church General Conference react to the defeat of a proposal that would have allowed pastors to perform same-sex weddings and LGBTQ people to serve in ministry in some areas. Sid Hastings / AP