United Methodists to debate allowing gay clergy and same-sex marriage

RNS photo courtesy Paul Jeffrey/United Methodist News Service

(RNS) As nearly 1,000 delegates from across the world gather in Tampa, Fla., for the United Methodist Church's General Conference, gay and lesbian activists have printed pamphlets promoting their cause in five languages, including Portuguese and Swahili.

Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster lifts a chalice high during the consecration of the elements in the April 24 opening worship service of the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida.

Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster lifts a chalice high during the consecration of the elements in the April 24 opening worship service of the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida.

The UMC's global reach, stretching from the Philippines to Philadelphia, compels the multilingual lobbying. Nearly 40 percent of the delegates, who meet through May 4, live outside the United States, according to church leaders. 

“We see it as a challenge to deal with the cultural differences,” said Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany, who will be installed in Tampa as president of the UMC’s Council of Bishops. “But we also see it as a gift.”

Convened every four years, General Conference legislates decisions on everything from pensions to prayer books. But few debates garner as much attention and acrimony as the role of gays and lesbians in the UMC. 

The homosexuality debate dates to 1972, when a phrase calling homosexual activity “incompatible with Christian teaching” was added to the Book of Discipline, which contains the denomination's laws and doctrines. The UMC also bans noncelibate gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

The UMC's long and painful membership decline in the U.S. looms over the debate, as church leaders search for ways to reverse the decades-long drop.

Gay rights activists argue that the UMC must become more inclusive to attract young Americans who view the sexuality prohibitions as hypocritical. Conservatives counter that only churches that hold fast to traditional doctrines are growing.

United Methodists who support gay rights have proposed about 100 resolutions this year that would lift the bans and excise the “incompatible” phrase from the Book of Discipline. Leading up to General Conference, they argued that momentum is on their side.

For example, last year a UMC court barely punished a Wisconsin minister who sanctioned a same-sex marriage; more than 1,200 retired and active UMC clergy have pledged to perform gay marriages; surveys show young Christians generally support gay rights; and other mainline Protestants — including Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians — have adopted gay-friendly policies in recent years.

Conservatives counter that all of those churches have subsequently split, with traditionalist congregations packing up and starting new denominations.

Gay and lesbian Methodists acknowledge that their church's complexity presents unique challenges. For example, their General Conference includes delegates from states where gay marriage is legal, but also from countries like Liberia, where “voluntary sodomy” is a crime.

“Our structure is different, so that has impacted how we move on these concerns,” said Ann Craig, a United Methodist and gay activist who witnessed votes by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Presbyterian Church (USA) to allow partnered gay clergy.

“We’re going to move together when we move,” Craig said of her own UMC.

But others argue that trends favor traditionalists.  

For example, the UMC’s membership in the United States has fallen to 7.8 million, while it has grown to 4.4 million abroad, mainly in Africa and the Philippines, where homosexuality is denounced. As those numbers shift, so does the balance of power, since delegates to General Conference — the only church body that can change the homosexuality bans — are apportioned based on membership.

Compared to the 2008 General Conference, this year there are 100 fewer delegates from the U.S. and 100 more from abroad, according to Mark Tooley, a United Methodist and president of the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy. “With that lineup, a major shift would be unlikely,” said Tooley.

In addition, UMC growth is stronger in the Bible Belt than in the relatively liberal West and Northeast, said Russell Richey, co-author of a two-volume history of Methodism in the United States and former dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. 

Some United Methodists argue that policy should be set by regional conferences and reflect local mores. 

For example, pastors who live where gay marriage is legal should be permitted to wed same-sex couples in their congregations, said the Rev. Dean Snyder, senior pastor of Washington's Foundry United Methodist Church.

Foundry proposed a resolution that would allow churches in six states and the District of Columbia to celebrate same-sex marriage, and sent 50 volunteers to Tampa to lobby for it.

Snyder said his church has celebrated about 10 same-sex weddings since 2010, when D.C. legalized gay marriage. That admission could place the longtime pastor’s career in jeopardy if UMC policy is not changed at General Conference. 

“We are really praying that General Conference makes some movement,” Snyder said. “It’s going to be very disappointing if there is no movement at all.”

UMC Book of Discipline

About the author

Daniel Burke

Daniel Burke worked for Religion News Service from 2006-2013. He now co-edits CNN's Belief Blog.


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  • I’m not a Methodist, but I am ELCA, which recently went through this. I would fervently hope that the UMC wouldn’t let the conservative elements blackmail them with threats of a split. Sometimes you have to do the right thing and let the naysayers go say nay somewhere else.

  • It is interesting that Gallifrey1966 doesn’t want the conservative element to split as long as they alter their viewpoint to conform with his, but he does invite them to go somewhere else if they remain naysayers. I wonder if Jesus would would approve the toleration of more sin in order to maintain members in the church. Hmmm… I think Jesus would prefer that we pursue holiness. For example, in John 6, Jesus was content to let his disciples leave when they could not accept the truth. It will be interesting to see if the UMC follows Jesus’ example, or if they rely on the wisdom of man. I am glad that I belong to a denomination that is more concerned about the truth in scripture rather than which way the social winds are blowing.

  • I don’t think that the conservative movement, by agreeing with a policy that was instituted by the Bible, and was the mainstream thought for centuries should be considered being a “naysayer”. If anything, it is those who want to go against biblical teachings on the subject of homosexuality who are doing the blackmailing. Look at the history of this debate in the United States. If it is anyone doing the blackmailing, it is the pro-homosexual crowd. We are called to love one another, but not to put up with sin in our society. It is as simple as that.

  • …and on the subject of a “split”….is that really a threat to any religion any more? It certainly isn’t to most protestant religions. Ever since Martin Luther the protestant religions have split, split again, and split again over subjects far less serious than homosexuality. Isn’t that what it means to be a protestant….you protest…then you split? What was started by Martin Luther is exercised over and over again. I don’t see that stopping any time soon…..unfortunately. When the definition of truth is lost – and the authority to even decide “what is truth”……the number of splits that the protestant religion is faced with is inevitable.

  • CarpeDiem is dead on. It is not good for people that do not believe in the word of God to be shepherding his people. Basically, if you call yourself a man of God and you call “right” not what Godsays is true, but rather what the world tells us, thanyou are not ofGod,but of the world and unless you repent, let me remind you, you have a millstone tied around your neck.

    “Many in that day will say to me, Lord, Lord…And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and DOES THEM, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

    If you are gay, by all means, come quickly to the Lord! God is good and His burden islight, He will work the miracle of righteousness Himself within you. Just call on Him, He does not wish that any shouldperish. But know this, God is not the god of our imaginations, He does not bend or make exceptions for evil. He is holy, and His children will be holy.

  • Excuse me but the last time i checked Homosexuality is a sin! And the so called leaders of the church want to marry these people!? And also have them as leaders!? And this under the banner of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ!? If that’s the case why not go to a strip club,stop by a whore house,pick up some crack buy some hard alcohol and then say i am the leader of your church! If you are willfully practicing sin you disqualify yourself immediately from leadership period.We don’t hate Gay’s Hetero sluts, thieves and drug dealers etc.. 1John 4:20-21

    “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.

  • Hmmm… “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity. There are many doctrines of a less essential nature… In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’ These are the fundamental doctrines… summed up, as it were, in two words, — the new birth, and justification by faith.” – John Wesley

  • If I believed that homosexual orientation,, a natural variant of birth, were a sin – which I do not –I would say to the genital police herein blogging that Jesus absolutely tolerates sin to maintain membership in his church. If he didn’t, every church would be empty. Sin is the nature of the human condition, Carpe. And Jesus tells us in numerous way to “put up” with sin, Tshak. “Let he who is without (any) cast the first stone.”, And what about that log in YOUR eye, pattyOfurniture. God makes exceptions for evil every day,. His name is Jesus.

    Martin Luther was NOT about “splitting,” he sought reform not schism and he died a Roman Catholic priest, loyal to the Holy Mother Church unto his last breath..

    Y’all are way too obsessed with sin and as a result you stand the Gospel on its head to justify yourselves. God is far more concerned about what you’re doing when you’re not sinning that what you are doing when you are. I mean, why even keep a list that everyone is on. It’s the things you do in God’s name that keep God wake at night – like exalting yourselves by judging, condemning, and excluding “others.”

    We can’t possibly know God’s reasoning for homosexuality, except to the extent that it challenges that it challenges us to our very core about what it means to love one another and to welcome the stranger. The rest is just “vanity and so much chasing after wind.”

    Pastor Scott
    West Hollywood, CA

  • GLOBALIZATION: Doing for the United Methodist Church what it did for the United States Economy.

  • @ Pastor Scott,Do you just cut the parts out of the Bible that don’t fit your life style?
    When you get to this part what do you tell your flock?
    ” For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. Romans 1:26-27

  • @Pastor Scott…..perhaps “Put Up With Sin” was a poor choice of words. It would have been better if I had said “we should not turn a blind eye towards sin”. Your philosophy seems to be …”we all sin – so we should just ignore that it happens and carry on”. That was not what Jesus preached. He truely said to “go an sin no more!”. Does that sound like we are all just to “accept” our sin? Yes – we all sin – but we are commanded to not sin. Yes – we fall short of that – but just accepting sin and pretending it isn’t sin – is wrong. It hurts us – and it hurts the sinner! If you had a friend who was a serial bank robber – would you tell them to just keep it up – Jesus forgives you – – – – or would you tell them that they should stop robbing banks – it can do you harm – you need to reform your life? Why should you treat the sin of homosexuality any differently?

    Finally…your quote about “casting the stone” seems off the mark. Jesus said we should not condem people….he didn’t say we should ignore their sins and not tell them about it. I didn’t see a single comment in this blog where people were condeming homosexuals to hell…..not at all….but we are standing up and telling homosexuals that it is a sin to do that behavior. There is a difference…..and that was what Jesus was saying regarding the “casting the stone” comment. I would never tell someone that they were going to hell – that is not my place to say…..but I would tell someone if they were sinning…..that IS my place to say…..Jesus had several instances of telling us that we need to hold each other accountable for our sins, etc. Ignoring the sins of our brothers and sisters in this world, in the interest of “political correctness” simply does them no good…..