A major gathering of the United Methodist Church has reaffirmed its teaching on homosexuality, rejecting same-sex unions and the ordination of sexually active homosexuals, prompting predictions that some American congregations who reject this teaching will leave the denomination.
The international gathering, called a Special Session of the General Conference of the UMC, drew over 800 ministers and lay leader delegates to St. Louis Feb. 22-26.
The debate drew out different approaches to the authority of Scripture, marriage, and sexuality, but ultimately left the ecclesial community's official teaching unchanged.
Scott Jones of the Methodists’ Texas Conference said the decision resolves a longstanding debate and is consistent with the ecclesial community's teachings on human sexuality, which it has listed in its Book of Discipline since 1972.
That teaching states “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It bars “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from ordination.
“We will continue to welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer persons to our churches and affirm their sacred worth,” said Jones, according to the United Methodist News Service. “I pray we, as a denomination, can now move forward, working with each other in the spirit of Christian love and joining together as one. We are stronger together in serving God’s mission as a diverse body of Christ.”
The United Methodist Church is the largest mainline Protestant ecclesial community in the U.S., where it has about 6 million members. Almost one-third of its membership is from Africa. Non-U.S. speakers from countries like Liberia and Russia were among the strongest backers of the successful proposal called the Traditional Plan.
“The progressive groups are loud, but they don’t have the numbers,” said Jerry Kulah, head of the UMC Africa Initiative, who said he was sorry so much time and money was spent debating homosexuality.
A pro-LGBT vote would have made the ecclesial community a “laughingstock” in Africa, he said, according to the Washington Post. “I’m happy to go back to old ladies and old men in villages who received the Bible from missionaries and let them know that the Bible hasn’t changed.”
UMC rules have officially barred same-sex unions and the ordination of sexually active homosexuals. However, many American congregations perform same-sex ceremonies and ordain sexually active LGBT people as clergy.
The approved plan strengthened some disciplinary action against ministers who reject it. A minister who attempts to perform a same-sex wedding faces a minimum one-year suspension without pay for the first offense, and permanent removal for the second offense.
The plan now goes to the ecclesial community's top court, the Judicial Council, to address constitutional issues. The delegates also adopted a minority report on how congregations may disaffiliate from the community.
A different proposal, the One Church Plan, was recommended by the denomination’s Council of Bishops. That plan would have allowed local congregations, conferences and clergy to make their own decisions about whether to conduct same-sex marriages and ordain LGBT pastors.
This plan was rejected with opposition from 53 percent of delegates, after failing a previous day’s committee vote.
An alternative “Simple Plan” would have removed all teaching regarding sexual relations limited to husband and wife. This would have removed teachings against premarital sex, adultery, and homosexual behavior. About 60 percent of delegates rejected this plan.
Some foes of the Traditional Plan attempted various delaying tactics, including amendments stating that according to the Bible any candidate for pastor or bishop who is divorced or remarried is as ineligible as a practicing homosexual.
One critic, Rev. Dr. Mark Holland, executive director of the group Mainstream UMC, lamented the decision, saying “No way around it, this hurts. My heart breaks for all the LGBTQ persons in our connection.”
In a statement on his group’s website, Holland said the plan’s felt like the ecclesial community had “shattered” and “spilled.” He contended that the general conference is a “charade” that is “completely controlled by a well-funded, well-staffed, U.S. based advocacy group.”
“Our church was hijacked from the inside out,” he said, charging that the Traditional Plan was “gutted” and its unconstitutional parts were not fixed. Describing the exit plan as “fatally flawed and unconstitutional,” predicting it would be “dead on arrival” at the judicial council in April.
“They have a symbolic victory only. We are essentially at status quo,” he said.
John Lomperis, United Methodist Director of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, backed the Traditional Plan. Writing at the blog Juicy Ecumenism, he said the conference showed “the very deep divides in our denomination.”
“There was plenty of loud, angry protesting. So much hurt all around. It was a rather stressful day,” he said.
In his view, the failure of the One Church Plan was a “dramatic rebuke” of the leadership efforts of the UMC leaders and if it could not be passed at this general conference it is difficult to see how it could pass in the future, when American delegate numbers will likely decrease and overseas delegates increase.
The Reconciling Ministries Network called the passage of the Traditional Plan “deeply unjust and painful.” It attributed its passage to “the efforts of organized opponents to gospel inclusion who have funded and promoted the demise of Christian witness across denominations who have dared to call out a white nationalist strain of Christianity.”
“For decades, they sought the decline of biblical justice-rooted Christian traditions and have built the infrastructure and narrative that has now risen to power in The United Methodist Church.”
The network said the 1972 teaching is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and has been “so harmful to so many lives.” It said harm is done when “LGBTIQA+ lives” are not affirmed.”
The network dates back to 1982, when its founders sought to encourage congregations to affirm gays and lesbians. It claims 900 “Reconciling Communities” and over 35,000 members.
The future of some American Methodist schools of higher education is also in doubt. Jan Love, a dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, said Feb. 26 she and the other heads of the 13 official United Methodist theological schools believe “unequivocally” that the Traditional Plan threatened the future of the UMC in the U.S.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group within the UMC, backed the successful Traditional Plan but still might leave, association head Keith Boyette told The Atlantic.
LGBT advocacy within Christian denominations and Churches has external support. The Arcus Foundation has long backed LGBT advocates within Christian denominations and Churches.
A $150,000 grant to Church Properties Reimagined, Inc. in 2018 backed the Inclusive Coalition’s Project advocacy to “influence pro-LGBT Church policy,” while a 2017 grant of $30,000 aimed “to bring together moderate and progressive church leaders to develop shared strategies on LGBT issues” ahead of the 2019 special session of the general conference.
The foundation’s Spring 2018 grant announcement said the group’s grant aimed to deepen support for LGBT inclusion as an official UMC policy. The group has “recruited a group of well-connected individuals to provide leadership to the project.”
Since 2011 the Arcus Foundation has given $1.9 million in various grants to the group Reconciling Ministries Network for LGBT advocacy within the UMC.
Specifically, a 2017 grant of $220,000 backed “work to win over religious leaders in the Southern United States, Liberia, and Cote D’Ivoire, three crucial conservative strongholds within United Methodism.” A 2014 grant backed “clergy who engage in acts of ecclesial disobedience in the name of LGBTQ justice and work with coalitions for policy change” within the UMC.
The Arcus Foundation also funds dissenting Catholic groups like Catholics for Choice, Dignity USA and the Equally Blessed Coalition. Some of this work has targeted Catholic Church synods.
CNA contacted the Arcus Foundation, Reconciling Ministries Network, and Church Properties Reimagined but did not receive a response by deadline.