I have been following the ongoing General Conference of the United Methodist Church, taking place in Portland, Oregon as I write this. You can read coverage of the Conference on the United Methodist Reporter site, Christy Thomas’ The Thoughtful Pastor blog site (representing a liberal point of view), Joel Watts’ Unsettled Christianity blog site (representing a conservative point of view), and dozens of other religious and mainstream news outlets.
Normally, a conference of Methodist bishops would not receive this much attention. But this is not a normal conference. The United Methodist Church may be on the verge of splitting in two, over the issues of LGBTQ inclusion in the church.
I am no expert when it comes to the United Methodist Church. Here’s what I’ve figured out so far (and please, if you know something about the Methodists, correct me when I go wrong, and add the important detail I’m leaving out). Let’s start with some basic history, for people like me who are bewildered by the denominations within Protestantism.
Methodism is a group of Protestant churches that arose out of the teaching of John Wesley, an 18th century Anglican minister. Wesley taught, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Good advice! Wesley originally sought to reform the Anglican church from within, but his movement eventually separated from the Anglicans. In the United States Methodism grew rapidly, becoming the largest denomination in America by the mid-19th century. American Methodism has undergone several divisions and mergers over the years, including a break-away of some African-American Methodists in the early 1800s to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (both of which remain separate from the United Methodist Church). The current United Methodist Church (or UMC) is the product of a 1968 merger between The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.
The UMC is now the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with around 8 million members. The UMC also includes 4-5 million members outside of the United States, mostly in Asia and Africa. If we count those who identify with the UMC but are not members of a UMC church, then these numbers increase substantially. The Pew Research Center says that roughly 4% of U.S. residents affiliate with the UMC. The UMC is classified as a “Mainline Protestant” church, in contrast to churches like the Southern Baptists that are classified as “Evangelical Protestant.”
The UMC preaches active engagement with the world, a “practical divinity” that puts “faith and love into action.” While this might make Methodists sound like liberals, on average U.S. UMC members fall politically in the middle of Mainline Protestantism. The U.S. UMC is largely White (94%), older (63% over 50), Republican and moderate-conservative, and their surveyed views on issues such as abortion, evolution and environmental protection place them somewhere to the right of American Presbyterians and to the left of American Baptists. In 2015, Mainline Methodist support for same-sex marriage was at 49%, compared to 57% for all U.S. Mainline Protestants and 55% for Americans in general.
Of course, the UMC position on LGBTQ issues is not determined by polling! The UMC is governed by a Book of Discipline (or BOD), originally published in 1784, that is periodically revised to reflect changes in church policy. It’s the job of the UMC’s General Conference to adopt legislation to be included in the BOD. The BOD currently contains general articles on church inclusiveness and eligibility, and sets forth a specific commitment “not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.” The UMC has declared that it is dedicated:
to a ministry of Christ-like hospitality and compassion to persons of all sexual orientations, and to a vision of unity through openness to the spiritual gifts of all those who have been baptized into the Body of Jesus Christ. Such ministry and openness may include: welcoming sexual minorities, their friends, and families into our churches and demonstrating our faith in a loving God; a willingness to listen and open our hearts to their stories and struggles in our churches, districts, annual conferences, and General Conference; encouraging study and dialogue around issues of sexuality; and praying for all those who are in pain and discord over our Christian response to this controversial issue.
But the BOD also declares the “practice of homosexuality” to be “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and prohibits “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from serving in the UMC as ministers or otherwise. (It is my understanding that the UMC permits gays and lesbians to serve as ministers so long as they remain celibate, and that some UMC churches have ordained transgender pastors.) The BOD also prohibits church funds from being used “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” or from being given “to any gay caucus or group.” The BOD does not allow “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions” to be conducted by UMC ministers or in UMC churches.
It is here where the UMC has run afoul of the strongly held convictions of many of its members. Much of the church appears to be in open revolt against the BOD’s anti-LGBTQ strictures. The U.S. UMC churches are organized into regional “Annual Conferences,” and a number of these Annual Conferences have publicly defied the BOD by welcoming and approving openly LGBTQ candidates for ministry. Other Annual Conferences have declared their support for marriage equality legislation. Some UMC ministers have performed same-sex weddings in defiance of the BOD’s ban. Just before the start of this year’s General Conference, 111 UMC clergy and candidates for ordination published an open letter declaring that they “are coming out as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning and Intersex persons,” so as to “bring our full selves to ministry” and provide hope for people “in hostile UMC Churches.” This letter has since been endorsed by more than 2,000 UMC clergy.
The UMC has previously defrocked clergy who have gone against the BOD on issues involving sexual orientation, but it would require a radically more sweeping effort to discipline hundreds of organized UMC clergy determined to pursue LGBTQ and marriage equality. Then again, the conservative wing of the UMC appears to be seeking exactly this kind of discipline. Joel Watts asks, “if our episcopal leaders continue to ignore our discipline and in many ways, our orthodox doctrine, do we remain a Church?”
While UMC conservatives are probably in the minority in the U.S., they form what seems to be a solid majority coalition in the General Conference along with conservative Methodists from Asia and Africa. In-between the rebellious pro-LGBTQ faction and the UMC conservatives are centrists arguing for unity. “Jesus told his disciples to be one,” said one pastor attending the General Conference. “The reason this is messy is because there’s a deep moral obligation to be one.” But even the centrists do not seem to think that the UMC can find a single set of rules to resolve LGBTQ issues to everyone’s satisfaction. Instead, many centrists argue for some degree of local church autonomy, where a given church might decide to affirm the traditional BOD provisions, or ordain LGBTQ clergy, or perform same-sex marriages.
At this year’s General Meeting (as in every prior General Meeting since 1972), liberal efforts to modify the BOD provisions on LGBTQ matters were blocked by the UMC conservatives. LGBTQ supporters mounted protests, and rumors circulated throughout the General Meeting that the UMC was about to split in two. To avert disaster, the General Meeting narrowly approved a proposal by the UMC’s Council of Bishops where all BOD legislation concerning human sexuality was taken off this year’s agenda, and a UMC “special Commission” was recommended “to develop a complete examination and possible revision” of all language relating to sexuality in the BOD. The proposal also seems to promise a temporary halt to all discipline against LGBTQ clergy and clergy performing same-sex weddings. According to Bruce Ough, President of the UMC Council of Bishops, the proposal is non-binding.
The response to the adoption of the Council of Bishops proposal was divided, with centrist and some liberal UMC representatives reacting with cautious optimism. Christy Thomas wrote that the proposal would hopefully lead to the eventual removal of discriminatory language from the BOD, perhaps in conjunction with a change in governance that would give U.S., African and Asian UMC churches autonomy to determine separate LGBTQ policies. Matt Berryman, the Executive Director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, described the proposal as “just a beginning,” but added that “it signals hope to an end of church trials, to celebrating all marriages, to accepting the gifts of our LGBTQ candidates for ministry, clergy and lay employees.” Conservatives seemed to agree that the proposal’s adoption represented a victory for the center-left. The conservative Methodist group “Good News” declared the UMC to be “broken, divided and dysfunctional,” and accused the Council of Bishops of being “unable to provide the leadership we need.” Joel Watts derided the proposal as “kicking the can down the road.”
What happens now? There’s no firm guarantee that a UMC “special Commission” will succeed where the General Meeting failed. The U.S. majority in the General Meeting is shrinking as the Asian and African UMC churches continue to grow, meaning that the conservative majority in the General Meeting should also continue to grow. The window for pro-LGBTQ changes within a united UMC may be closing (if, indeed, it ever was open). There’s also something I’ve failed to capture in the reports from the General Meeting: everyone concerned—left, right and center—seems exhausted by this ongoing battle. There simply may not be the will or the energy to continue the struggle to resolve this issue within a united UMC.
The UMC may be heading towards schism, just as a schism is emerging between the Anglican and U.S. Episcopal Churches on the question of same-sex marriage, and just as LGBTQ issues are dividing the Mennonite and Lutheran churches. Moreover, it is not clear how the UMC could remain “united” even if did agree to greater local church autonomy. Would marriages performed in an LGTBQ-friendly UMC church be recognized in a traditional church operating under the current BOD? Would the UMC need two sets of seminaries to fill positions in its two types of churches? And what happens in future General Meetings? Would leaders of LGBTQ-friendly churches be permitted to attend?
I am raising these questions not only out of concern for the UMC church and my friends affiliated with this church. I am raising these questions because the division in the UMC church is present in other religious bodies and in society as a whole. The question of how to address this divide is a question we all face, in one way or the other.
The easy solution to what divides us is schism. If I were church-shopping, I think I’d have about zero interest in a church that wasn’t 100% committed, top to bottom, to full LGBTQ equality and well-being. I don’t think I’d want to join the Methodists, and have to explain that my Methodist Church was LGBTQ-affirming … unlike that other Methodist church down the street that had refused to change its ways. If I’m going to choose a religious brand, why choose a brand that requires an accompanying footnote? Then again … as a Jew, I do have to sometimes explain that most Jews are strong supporters of LGBTQ rights and do not follow the Orthodox Jewish refusal to condone same-sex marriage and same-sex sex. But I do point proudly to how my denomination of Reform Judaism supports LGBTQ acceptance by a margin of 92% to 4%. When I preach LGBTQ rights at my synagogue, I’m preaching to the choir.
And yet … and yet …
To what extent are the attitudes of conservative UMC leaders and members in Africa and Asia a product of U.S. cultural, economic, political and religious imperialism? I want to be careful here: it would be insulting to suggest that the thinking of Third World Christians is dominated by old homophobic Western fundamentalist ideas that the West (but not the Third World) has since had the wisdom to discard. At the same time (and to paraphrase a younger Hillary Clinton), LGBTQ rights ARE human rights. If it’s wrong for a church to marginalize its LGBTQ membership, then it’s wrong whether the church is in Philadelphia or the Philippines. If we in the West have contributed to the oppression of LGBTQ people elsewhere (and I think it’s clear that we have), then we cannot walk away from the responsibility of trying to right this wrong.
There may be a value in unity that we’re missing. I have the ability to choose my church (or in my case, synagogue). Lots of people do not. Kids go to church with their parents. While patriarchy may be on the wane, there are still women who worship where men tell them to worship. And as LGBTQ members of the UMC have affirmed, even an unfriendly church may still be “home.” The signers of the open letter I referred to above stated that they are part of the UMC “because G-d has called us to serve in this denomination, and our souls are fed by the theology in which we’ve been raised.” If these LGBTQ Methodists are committed to a church that has “not always been faithful to us,” shouldn’t those of us who identify as LGBTQ allies consider membership in a divided and wounded church?
And if we abandon these churches to their traditionalism … who will speak there for the values of inclusion, welcome, hospitality, fellowship and equality?
I welcome your comment and discussion. Please post your thoughts below.
NOTE: after posting the above, I read this open letter from Kimberly Knight, and thought it had to be included as part of any discussion of the value of unity of a church that is not LGBTQ-affirming. Knight writes in part:
#itistime for some, many perhaps, to walk away and seek a community of faith elsewhere. Please understand, it really is okay, for relationships to end, especially, and without question, if they are toxic or abusive. The notion that people must stay ad infinitum in a relationship that harms them is dangerous if not deadly. Friends, lovers, partners, family members and yes, even church members can come to a breaking point where a healthier life for each is found outside a particular relationship. What we so often forget is that there are SO MANY healthier friends, lovers, partners, communities and churches that will love each of us in our wholeness without asking that we lie to ourselves, others and G-d about who we are and who we love.
Hoping church folks remain at one particular denominational table (not synonymous with G-d’s table, mind you) in the face of egregious soul-harm smacks of telling an abused spouse that they should stay in a marriage because “marriage is sacred.” No one gets a pass, most certainly not those who have the audacity to assume they are speaking for G-d.
Denominational fidelity, even congregation fidelity has nothing to do with, and at times is diametrically opposed to, fidelity to and faith in G-d. A relationship simply is not sacred if one’s FULL sacred worth is being denied or destroyed.