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Methodist leader acknowledges struggle to maintain unity

Demonstrators wear rainbow gags on May 14, 2016, to protest what they believe is an attempt to silence LGBTQ voices during the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. The silent protest took place at the edge of a plenary session of the conference. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, courtesy of UMNS

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) The United Methodist Church is struggling to maintain unity amid deep divisions over Scripture and sexuality, the presiding bishop of America’s second-largest Protestant denomination acknowledged. 

Responding to rumors of a potential breakup at the quadrennial United Methodist General Conference, Bishop Bruce Ough said Tuesday (May 17) that the leadership is “not advancing or advocating any plan of separation or reorganization of the denomination.”

The church faces increasing pressure in the United States to ordain LGBT clergy and allow same-sex weddings, both strongly opposed by conservatives in this country and among the growing congregations in Africa where homosexuality is banned in many countries.  There are 12 million Methodists worldwide, including 7.2 million in the U.S.

Ough, who is president of the Methodist Council of Bishops, acknowledged that its 152 members are divided. He cited a “brokenness” that “surrounds or emanates from matters of human sexuality, interpretation of Scripture, how we include our LGBT brothers and sisters.”

“At the same time, we remain open to new and innovative ways to be in unity. We will remain in dialogue with one another and others about how God may be leading us to explore new beginnings, new expressions, perhaps even new structures for our United Methodist mission and witness.”

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, responded to rumors on May 17, 2016, saying the bishops are only discussing "new structures," during the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Religion News Service photo by Emily Miller

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, responded to rumors on May 17, 2016, saying the bishops are only discussing “new structures,” during the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Religion News Service photo by Emily Miller

A proposal to split the church was reported in a video posted late Monday (May 16) to the Reconciling Ministries Network Facebook page. Reconciling Ministries is a network of Methodist congregations, groups and individuals advocating for the full inclusion of the denomination’s LGBT members.

The proposal reportedly would call a special session of the General Conference in 2018 in which “a plan of separation will be moved forward,” Love Your Neighbor Coalition coordinator Steve Clunn said in the video, recorded at a gathering that night for about 300 coalition volunteers.

In the meantime, the proposal envisioned a moratorium on any church action against LGBT clergy, he said.

Julia Frisbie, a coalition spokeswoman, says her group has been opposed to a schism in the church.

“We don’t think splintering the church will solve its problems,” she said.

Asked later at a press conference to respond to the rumored proposal, Ough confirmed that legislation had been put forward that would allow the congregations an exit strategy or authorize a commission to design a plan of separation.

Those ideas and many others were on the table during the bishops’ discussions, and they “captured everybody’s imagination” because they are “quite dramatic,” he said in response to a question from an RNS reporter.

But, he added, “We limited our conversations in the Council of Bishops to pretty high-level conceptual ideas.”

The coalition had not taken a stance on the plan and had been waiting for bishops to take leadership on it, Frisbie said.

Clunn said after Ough’s remarks, “I’m disappointed that the bishops obviously are suffering not just from divided opinions, but also from poor interpersonal communication.”

Delegates are considering more than 100 pieces of legislation regarding human sexuality this week at the General Conference.

The church’s Book of Discipline calls the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

In its first week, delegates at the General Conference voted down a rule that would have allowed them to discuss contentious legislation in small groups, which some had hoped would change the tenor of conversations about LGBT inclusion. Protests also briefly halted Monday’s plenary session, and other actions leading up to the conference brought attention to the tension in the denomination, including letters from 111 clergy who came out as openly LGBT and 1,500 clergy who pledged support for their colleagues.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

69 Comments

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  • Well, they are close to the food court. That is the high level debate going on. Fries or onion rings?

  • What is the value of unity that trashes scripture and God’s clear guidelines for holiness? How sad that this once powerful denomination has sunk so low. Is the leadership bowing to a fickle society’s changing moral values? Pray, pray, pray that God will intervene and convict sin and send revival and repentance?

  • The UMC must join the mainline Protestant Churches and finally, after 44 years give our LBGTQA sisters and brothers full inclusion. Let us not retreat to the days when our African American sisters and brothers were excluded. We cannot change our skin color, nor can we change our sexual orientation.

  • If he starts with the sin of homohatred disguised as sincere religious belief, I’m all for it.

  • Our African American brothers and sisters are exactly who don’t want this change the most!

  • No correlation between the two of those. Let’s just uphold God’s word, which the Book of Discipline was formed from.

  • Not according to you. But it takes very little effort to see the truth of the matter.

    But then, let’s do away with those female ministers. And kick out those divorced people who refuse to get unmarried. And hey, we can put up with a few drunks, can’t we

    It is amazing how many twists and contortions are needed to ignore God’s word when you need to, and enforce it when it is convenient. But then, God’s word is what you use to justify what cannot be justified by any other means.

  • and isn’t that the height of irony? However, when their 3/5’s of an opinion become relevant, we’ll let them know.

  • However, in all of my years as a member of the UMC, I have yet to see a UMC minister who openly lives their life as a drunk keep their job. I have seen ministers keep their jobs following divorce, but they must go through the trial and attend counseling sessions. Being female is not a sin, since God created us, so that is WAY off base. All of the sins which you did mention are addressed in the Bible, as well as the Book of Discipline. Read it.

  • Everyone’s opinion, including God’s, is relevant!! If it wasn’t, I assure you that the UMC would not have dealt with this painful issue, and the possibility of division, for as long as it has. Be thankful that they choose to discuss/debate, rather than simply firing all persons who cannot uphold their vows.

  • So they could keep their jobs as long as they drank in secret. No surprise. They are still drunks, and St. Paul said they would not enter the kingdom of heaven.

    Being a woman is not a sin, but women shall not speak up and shall have no authority over men. St. Paul again. Peter and Timothy too, I think.

    Ministers keep their jobs despite divorce. They just get a bit of counseling, and Jesus, who said no divorce except for adultery, and that remarriage after divorce (except for adultery) IS a sin. So they are often living Ina state of unrepentant sin, and still get to keep their jobs

    It seems to be that you draw your lines very carefully to include those like you, and exclude tHose who are not.

    good to know.

    But hardly a surprise.

    Being gay is that only sin that actually disqualifies a religious person from anything, according to religious people. All of the rest of the sins can safely be ignored.

    Which makes one wonder if it’s really about sin at all

  • Two words: Frank Schaefer.
    And thankful for what? That denominational unity has been more important than calling out the homophobes, who have taken some minor sin and turned it into the Worst sin Ever? That NALT Christians have finally gotten tired of being associated with the raging homophobes that hide behind their religious beliefs, and so now they are finally thinking about having the bishops appoint yet another commission to give it some study for a few more years?

  • Well UMC, if you’re having issues regarding being LGBTQs, why not become a Unitarian Universalist? Yeah, we don’t really emphasize God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and as a matter of fact, there are atheists (like me), but we do have LGBTQ clergy, so go to http://www.uua.org if you are an LGBTQ.

  • I said African AMERICAN sisters and brothers, those who say our LBGT sisters and brothers should be denied full inclusion are mainly from the continent of Africa, where homosexuality is a sin, punishable by death. Remember, Macy, that our sisters and brothers living on the continent of Africa are new to the Bible and therefore take it very literally, without any interpretation.

  • They will kick that can down the road for another two years, but finally, and I hope soon, the UMC will have to come kicking and screaming into the 21st century and allow full inclusion for our LBGT sisters and brothers. Aside from the Southern Baptists, the UMC is the only main line church to deny the right of full inclusion. What happened to the progressive Methodist Church of the 1960s? OH, yes, the EUB merger.

  • I’m not a Methodist, but — and correct me if I am wrong — it appears that the Gay Left wants (1) to have homosexuality approved and (2) for homosexual behavior to be OK for ministers.

    I don’t believe those upholding to the Bible are saying “gays…out.”
    They are saying: the BEHAVIOR — not the persons — is out.

    Obviously, some can’t handle the distinction. Understandable.

  • Skin color is benign.

    Sexual behavior is controllable. Race and skin color and ethnicity are not.

  • Sure. I’ll be happy to correct you.

    As far as “the gay left”, goes, it doesn’t exist. Ours is a very broad based movement. Not just gay people, not just liberal people, but people across a broad spectrum of politics, and our friends, colleagues, families, and neighbors.

    That being Gay is simply a behavior is one of the many stories that antigay, usually conservative, and almost always religious tell themselves to justify what has been done to gay people for 2000 years. When heterosexuality is considered simply a behavior, let me know.

    As for wanting to have homosexuality approved? The issues and questions around this go much further than I have time for. Check on my comment history. If it were simply a matter of approval or disapproval, we would be having a much different conversation. But it’s not. We’re talking about 2000 years of destroyed lives, murders, prisons, executions, beatings, destroyed families, wrecked careers, and a certain class of so called Christian blaming us for every possible social evil.

    But here’s the short answer. There’s a reason we don’t burn witches any more, or justify 2000 years of antisemitism.

    As for openly gay ministers? It’s just more of the same. When the same “concern” is lavished on all of the other sins, and when those sins disqualify people from the ministry, then we might be able to have a conversation.

  • Heterosexuality IS a behavior and many forms — premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, fornication — are prohibited.

  • I’m not saying ORIENTATION is or is not genetic or environmental. Outside my pay grade.

    We may not control our orientation — I grant you that — but we certainly do control our behavior. Most Christian churches say that homosexuals must refrain from sexual activity.

    You can agree or disagree with it, but that is the position.

  • You are correct. Anyone can make the choice to lead their life that way. We have freedom of choice. (???)

  • Funny, the only people who say that anyone can make a choice to lead their life that way are people who would never choose it. They’
    re called heterosexuals.

  • We don’t get to choose our sexuality, and no person who is heterosexual so chooses. Our only choice as gay people is either:
    1) to live our lives authentically, completely, and with the same fulfillment that every heterosexual expects as his or her birthright, AS WE ARE MADE…
    2) or to live our lives according to what ignorant and blind people, who think that sexuality is a choice, and who believe that the musings of goatherders 2000 years ago are truth are all truth, for all people, at all times, forever.

  • I was just saying that it’s behavior (at least in my church) that is the key issue, not orientation.

    Non-authorized sexual behavior by heterosexuals is not tolerated, either.

  • I am ok with that if the UMC were enforcing the whole of the Bible and Book of discipline. But each extremist side is picking and choosing issues that impact very few people and don’t manifest Christ in our midst and making it a battle ground. The Church, Judaism and even Islam have ALL had to adapt to a constantly changing world. That is part of how a relationship works. You relationship with your spouse or kids is not a fixed unchanging point. It changes over time and Bible clearly reflects this change in our relationship over time with God. Sooooooo Yes we should pray but I am praying that God’s mercy and goodness may flow over General Conference and that ALL may experience grace and peace.

  • Yes, it is understandable to want to be included – which everyone is. It is presumptuous to think that the body.of the Church should change it’s religion to cater to those who live lifestyles which are considered against Christian teaching.

  • I do my absolute best to follow the ways of the Lord, the teachings in the Bible, and the teachings of the United Methodist Church. <

  • So when the Methodist church finally decides to join the 20th century on this, you’ll be fine with it?

  • Calling homosexuality a behavior is a flat out but convenient 1ie in order to equate a measure of identity to alleged sin. You want an excuse to demean and attack people. So much so that hatred and malice become central parts of your faith.

    You believe in using religion as justification to act badly to people but not as a guide for your own behavior. Your version of Christianity is vile useless and pernicious. Of no value to society.

  • Because you have engaged in it? Know any gay people personally?

    Probably not. But it’s clear you make such ridiculous claims to use religion to attack and demean a given group.

  • Bigotry is not. Using religion to attack people is both assault on its victims and on any claims of integrity that faith had.

  • Yeah, the reason the story of Sodom and Gomorah and other Biblical proscriptions against homosexuality or fornication were put in there was so that 2,000 years later they could demean Greenwich Village liberals.

    Any other bright observations ?

  • Unfortunately for you, no authentic Christian or Judeo-Christian or other monotheistic faith promotes homosexuality.

    The only hatred here is liberals like you.

  • Unfortunately for you, facts are inconvenient to your bigotry. “Authentic” meaning whatever sect you belong to. Your use of religion to excuse bad behavior is repugnant garbage. If you believe such things are central to “authentic” Christianity, it speaks badly of the faith.

    At this point you have acknowledged that you are lying about homosexuality, but are falling back on religion to justify your views. Because the great thing about religion is it need not be rational or consistent in anything.

  • More evidence of your reading comprehension deficiency and dishonesty. Sodom and Gommorah is about treating strangers badly (the worst taboo in the ancient world) and Biblical proscriptions against homosexuality do not exist. Biblical proscriptions against temple rape, idolatry, and pederasty abound. But nothing about consensual adult relations.

    Any other bright observations? Yes that you are neither bright nor observant.

  • God created heterosexual. Most try to live as God would like. We all sin, and we should all seek to correct and overcome the sin, if possible.

  • Oh yeah, many sin in secret and keep their jobs. Just look at the number of homosexuals who “came out” at UMCGC. Prime example of hidden sin. Let’s see if they keep their jobs.

  • No, I’m quite clear. If you have divorced for any reason except for adultery, and then gotten remarried, you are living in sin. The only way to get out of living In a state of unrepentant sin is to divorce your current spouse. I suspect then that you would also have to remarry your first spouse.

    Jesus is pretty clear on this. Why aren’t you?

  • It’s not a lifestyle, it’s a life. And yes, the choice is a conscious choice, but not the one YOU think it is. That is just your unwarranted belief in a wholly imaginary superiority as a Christian and a human being speaking.

    Live my life fully, fulfillingly, and authentically, as I am made? Or listen to a bunch of people who pretend to speak for God, and who claim to know his relationship with any other soul on the planet but themselves, all based upon what they think a book written 2000-3000 years ago says, a book written by a people a universe away from us in thought language, culture, and morality.

    Such a difficult choice!

  • If you do not value the Bible or Christianity, I don’t know many people on this site who will be interested in discussing any further with you. We are Christians discussing issues within our church. NOT SOCIETY, our church. Your protests belong on the steps of the Capitol Building, not a chat site of the UMC. Praying for you. God bless you. <

  • Ben, Ben, Ben. There are Pastors in the UMC who get divorces. I think you are speaking of the Catholic Church. This is a discussion on the United Methodist Church’s current issues.

  • Macy, Macy, Macy.
    No, I’m speaking of what Jesus said about divorce. And how the UMC is perfectly happy to change to word of god as long as it doesn’t inconvenience heterosexuals.

  • I think a lot of Christians don’t value the bible or Christianity. And as long as Christians want their purely theological concerns legislated into civil law, in order to impact and control the lies of gay people, your discussion goes beyond your church.

  • I can’t be dishonest or immoral enough to be Christian like you. I have ethical standards to uphold.

    I will pray for you” is passive aggressive christianspeak for “go eff yourself” . an insincere kiss off line.

    You will pray for me, I will think for you.

  • The UMC has always loved the sinner and hated the sin. Redefining sin is ridiculous. Follow the Bible. If you cannot work for the church while following the Bible and leading by example, then you picked the wrong job. This rule has been in place since the beginning of these pastor’s ordination. Pastors who came in before this controversy are now seniors and will all be retired soon. All others took their job with a clear disrespect for the Discipline. Sometimes love requires discipline, and it might be time prune our body of Clergy.

  • “The UMC has always loved the sinner and hated the sin.”

    Its a cute expression for what really amounts to “lets hate people under the pretext of religion”. Using sin in such a general sense is also a grossly dishonest representation of your position. Not all sins are treated the same way, nor is it sane to do so. Swearing is not the same as murder. The clergy in question are following the Bible, just not the parts that cater to your present prejudices. The Bible has a lot of things its believers either mitigate, ignore, or gloss over for the purposes of functioning in a modern world. Claiming one is following it in its entirety is always a comforting fiction. Especially to those who try to use the Bible to excuse hateful behavior.

    A prejudicial rule is still a prejudicial rule, whether it was there for a long time or new to the group. Nor does your comment even try to make claims as to the propriety or morality of such rules. Simply accepting authority in an arbitrary fashion.

    Essentially you came here to excuse bigotry through euphemisms and nonsense statements. By avoiding arguments of the morality of the rules you are extolling, you are essentially admitting that they have no moral support.

    “Sometimes love requires discipline, and it might be time prune our body of Clergy.”

    Bigotry takes precedence over all other considerations. If your version of love involves ostracism, discrimination and attacks on others, you can have it. Nobody needs it. It is indistinguishable from hate.

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