The United Methodist Church is meeting for its quadrennial general conference. The most contentious issue facing the church is the role of LGBT members. Despite protests, the denomination is holding to its positions prohibiting LGBT clergy and same-sex weddings. The division is raising the possibility of a split within the denomination.
But how does the typical United Methodist view these issues?
The United Methodist Church (UMC) has over 12 million members worldwide. About 7.2 million of these are in the USA. While we can’t say much about UMC members globally, a recent poll gives us a snapshot of how the typical UMC member in America views LGBT issues.
The Pew Religious Landscape Study polled more than 35,000 Americans in 2014. This large sample resulted in over 1,600 Methodists being asked about their religious beliefs and their political views. The result is a snapshot into how the UMC is divided over issues of sexuality.
A majority of the UMC now views homosexuality as something that should be accepted (or at least not discouraged). Sixty percent of Methodists say that “homosexuality should be accepted by society.” Only 32 percent say it should be”discouraged.” Acceptance of homosexuality has risen by 10 points since Pew conducted its first survey seven years ago.
Compared to other mainline denominations, however, the UMC remains less supportive of LGBT acceptance. Eight-in-ten members of The Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ are supportive of LGBT inclusion. The UMC is also less accepting than the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Luthern Church in America. Of course, the UMC is far more accepting than the typical evangelical. Just over a third of evangelicals think society should be accepting of homosexuality.
But acceptance of homosexuality in society does not mean that members believe that it should be accepted in the church.
We can get a glimpse into this by looking at same-sex marriage. Across all denominations, there is less support for same-sex marriage. In the UMC, the membership is split with 49 percent favoring same-sex marriage and 43 percent opposing it.
While most Americans do not distinguish between civil and religious weddings, some do. In those cases, we would expect less support for same-sex weddings in the church.
The poll did not ask about the ordination of LGBT clergy. But based on the other questions, I would assume that the membership would be evenly divided or lean against ordination.
The poll shows that the division at the general meeting reflects a division within the church membership. Unlike other mainline denominations, Methodists are not solidly in favor of accepting homosexuality and they are split over same-sex marriage. Yet, the UMC is more liberal than evangelical denominations that remain opposed to LGBT acceptance.
The question that now faces the UMC is whether to remain united amidst the tension or allow its liberal and conservative congregations to part ways.