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Methodists postpone debate of gay issues that could split denomination

Delegates at the United Methodist Church General Conference in Portland, Ore., spent time in prayer on May 17, 2016 after Bishop Bruce Ough addressed rumors the denomination's Council of Bishops was considering a proposal to split the church. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) Amid protest, song and fears of a denominational breakup, United Methodists at their quadrennial General Conference decided yet again not to decide anything regarding LGBT rights.

But in a groundbreaking move, the delegates from the U.S. and abroad voted 428-405 on Wednesday (May 18) to allow the church’s Council of Bishops to appoint a commission to discuss whether to accept same-sex marriage or ordain LGBT clergy.

The bishops said they want the commission to “develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.”

“We continue to hear from many people on the debate over sexuality that our current discipline contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional and global contexts,” the bishops’ recommendation added.

It was a compromise to an issue that has vexed the decision-making body of America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, outnumbered only by the Southern Baptist Convention, at every quadrennial meeting since the UMC first deemed homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching” in 1972.

But it’s not clear whether the commission will present findings before the next General Conference planned in 2020.

Pressure to make the United Methodist Church a more LGBT-friendly church has increased in the U.S. since the Supreme Court’s decision last year to legalize same-sex marriage. Just before the conference started last week, 111 United Methodist clergy came out as LGBT, and earlier this week, an additional 1,500 clergy expressed support for their colleagues.

But disenchantment among conservatives with the growing support for same-sex marriage also was evident at the Methodist meeting.

“I think we keep wrestling with this just like the American public keeps wrestling with it,” said prominent United Methodist pastor and author the Rev. Adam Hamilton, whose original motion on the bishops’ recommendations was voted down.

He said the compromise reflected the difficulty of maintaining unity in a broad-based church.

“In America, we’re divided as a nation. The United Methodist Church in so many ways represents that broad spectrum of American people. We are Christians who are some on the left, some on the right, and a large number of us are on what we call the extreme center or the radical center.”

The United Methodist Church has some 12 million members worldwide, including more than 7 million in the U.S., and is experiencing its greatest growth in places, particularly Africa, where homosexuality is illegal in some countries.

The conference had been set to discuss legislation regarding human sexuality on Wednesday, amid growing tension and demonstrations over the church’s positions denying ordination to LGBT clergy and marriage to same-sex couples.

More than 160 demonstrators had greeted delegates that day with a silent protest lining the sidewalk outside the Oregon Convention Center. Some held signs saying “It’s Time” and “Why exclude us?” and “Self-avowed practicing queer clergy”; others, wooden crosses draped in stoles representing LGBT people in ministry.

On Tuesday, Council of Bishops President Bruce Ough had demurred on rumors bishops would call for a special session of the General Conference in two years to consider a split in the denomination over the issue. Delegates then tasked him with meeting with his fellow bishops and bringing back direction on how to move forward on issues related to human sexuality.

The bishops’ recommendations don’t name a split, “but it ought to be the goal,” said Dorothee Benz, a New York delegate and national representative of Methodists In New Directions.

The LGBT activist said she’s skeptical about the commission but glad legislation that would have strengthened action against LGBT or affirming clergy also has been shelved in the meantime. The most important thing to understand about those recommendations, Benz said, is that they came as “a product of unrelenting pressure that we as activists have put on the church by refusing our compliance and complicity in discrimination.”

Wednesday was the ninth day of a conference that has felt like a roller coaster ride, dogged by protests and mired in parliament-like proceedings. With two days left, votes went back and forth.

Hamilton’s motion — which turned the bishops’ recommendations into three concrete actions — first was voted down. Afterward, Baltimore-Washington delegate Jen Ihlo called for Bishop Bill McAlilly, presiding over the afternoon session, to step down after he had, she said, “single-handedly undone everything that was done this morning.”

Ihlo, who had supported the motion, said she felt the bishop had confused the body. Another delegate accused the bishop of sending hand signals telling people how to vote.

After a brief recess — during which many African delegates burst into song, asking God for help — it was determined McAlilly could continue.

The so-called Hamilton motion differed only slightly from the motion to adopt the bishops’ recommendations without spelling them out that eventually was approved by just 23 votes. Namely, those recommendations had not finalized plans for a special session, only noting it supported processes to help the church heal “up to and including the possibility of a called General Conference in 2018 or 2019.”

Hamilton — who had written a plan called “A Way Forward” that would have allowed regional bodies to make decisions on LGBT inclusion — had called the recommendations “our best chance of finding a long-term solution that may result in a division; hopefully, it will result in unity.” A smaller group of United Methodists from all sides of the issues and parts of the world might better be able to accomplish that than 864 delegates, he said.

Ihlo said she thinks it’s that “worldwide nature of the church” that keeps issues of LGBT inclusion coming back every four years to the General Conference. African delegates “have a different culture and a different view of homosexuality than we do in the United States, and we can’t find a way to move forward,” she said.

“I’m not asking them to believe something they don’t believe but I’m also asking them to not force their interpretation of the Bible on me,” she said.

The Rev. Forbes Matonga of West Zimbabwe, who during debate had called on the conference to make a decision and move on, noted as Hamilton had that many Americans also have scriptural or theological problems with homosexuality.

“In Africa, definitely it is not a big issue,” Matonga said. “It only becomes a big issue because we know there are efforts by those who are from the extreme left to come and influence Africa to appear as if it is a human race issue rather than a U.S. issue.

“We also refuse to regionalize this problem in the church. If we are truly one body, if we are truly a global church, this is one issue that I don’t think is cultural. Human sexuality is not cultural.”

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.

67 Comments

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  • “The United Methodist Church has some 12 million members worldwide, including more than 7 million in the U.S., and is experiencing its greatest growth in countries, particularly in Africa, where homosexuality is illegal in some countries.”

    Of course. Religion always experiences its greatest growth among people with the highest levels of ignorance, and the lowest levels of achievement, prosperity, and general well-being. Even within the United States, religion maintains its strongest stranglehold over people in areas with those same characteristics.

  • Quote from Rev. Forbes Matonga of West Zimbabwe: “In Africa, definitely it is not a big issue,” Matonga said. “It only becomes a big issue because we know there are efforts by those who are from the extreme left to come and influence Africa to appear as if it is a human race issue rather than a U.S. issue.”“We also refuse to regionalize this problem in the church. If we are truly one body, if we are truly a global church, this is one issue that I don’t think is cultural. Human sexuality is not cultural.”

    So, “The Right” is not making this a “big issue”. Excuse me?

    And, “human sexuality is not cultural”? Seriously? Different cultures don’t have different perspectives on human sexuality and issues of intimacy and relationships?

    i think we just got a window into part of the problem here.

  • The new commission is another compromise kick-the-can down the road decision to placate those who would dilute God’s standards. It seem it’s all about giving in to the “world’s” changing views on sin, and each person measuring goodness or righteousness by his or her own standards or personal opinion. Very little is said about God’s call to complete holiness. God cannot look upon sin. If it doesn’t repent on this issue the Methodist Church will surely fall further, losing its moral authority completely.

  • Assuming that homosexuality is a sin, which I don’t believe, you need to explain why you pick out this particular “sin” as the disqualifier, while ignoring others? Why do you ignore the sins Jesus railed against, while focusing on this one, highly disputed “sin”?

  • While we are all sinners saved by grace and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the sins outlined in the 10 Commandments and in Jesus’ teaching do not focus unduly on one particular issue. However, it’s groups of individuals such as the LGBT clergy community who are set on redefining morality to justify themselves and attempting to change the meaning of scripture and its God-ordained guidelines for holiness.

  • So people who are being discriminated against should just be quiet about it? We might still have the feudal system if folks agreed with you.

  • All the liars and adulterers should protest too, because the church is definitely discriminating against them by not blessing their particular sins.

  • Ok. Here’s a fact–in the US, college educated, upper income Americans are more likely to belong to a religious group and attend regular worship services than other Americans:
    http://www.nbcnews.com/id/44192469/ns/health-behavior/t/who-going-church-not-who-you-think-study-finds/#.Vz4t6nnrsy8
    I find it interesting that for someone who is so apparently against religion, you would hang out on the Religion News Service website reading stories about a conflict within the Methodist Church. Doesn’t seem like it would be your cup of tea.

  • There is nothing new about not wanting to face unwelcome and uncomfortable truths that convict ones’ conscience of sin. In Isaiah 30:10, the people told Isaiah not to prophesy unto them “right things but prophesy smooth things. Prophesy deceits.”
    Paul admonished Timothy to preach the Word because the time would come when they would not endure sound doctrine, but heap to themselves teachers that would teach what people wanted to hear.

    That’s what we have today. No doctrinal leadership that looks to biblical truth for direction. Now we can see what we want to see according to those apologists –and pretty soon we won’t even recognize sin. We seem to have more reverential fear of being politically incorrect than we do of honoring God’s Word that He said would stand from the generation when David wrote all the way to forever. Forever gets you to 2016. Psalm 12: 6-7

  • Many have said it and I hear it daily, there is a split coming just like the ELCA faced and the LCMC was born, who now is 1000 churches strong.

  • The objective of the church is supposed to be to demote sin, not promote it. Conducting homosexual marriage promotes sin. Allowing there to be homosexual pastors promotes sin. Matt 19:4, Mark 10:6, Rom. 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9-10, 1 Tim. 1:8-11 and Jude 1:7 clearly teach that homosexual behavior is sin.

  • “Very little is said about God’s call to complete holiness.”

    Because no such call exists. All Christians claim they are always awash in sin. Except you of course.

  • There is nothing new about pretending abuse and malicious activity is done in some sign of “love” of the victim. If one’s actions are indistinguishable from hate, calling it “love and concern” doesn’t change its repugnant nature.

    You seem to think treating other people like garbage is a central tenet of your faith. It speaks badly for your beliefs. It does nothing to garner the respect you crave by citing scripture.

  • Actually African Christians are being led towards violent bigotry against gays by American preachers like Scott Lively.

    By all means make the claim that much of Sub-Sahara Africa is prosperous, has a large educated population, responsible governments, and relative peace. I need a good chuckle.

  • Unity is overrated. It only is a worthy goal if there are common goals to be met. If the Methodists can’t agree about how to treat their own members, tearing the church apart is necessary.

    It is obvious that the efforts by the overly bigoted evangelical sects to disrupt mainstream ones, especially in the developing world is working.

  • Actually they are. They are asking for gays to be subjected to persecution, imprisonment and execution. Not just their members but their countrymen.

    “Tradition Christianity” as you call it is just a euphemism for religious inspired terrorism. To use influence of religion to attack others be it legalized discrimination in developed countries or outright murder in the developing ones.

  • It’s absolutely correct. Human sexuality is not cultural, it is universal. However, denying reality, science, psychology and common sense when it comes to human sexuality is a cultural thing, and it appears to be highly prevalent in Africa, as it once was in the U.S.

  • I’m not sure why you think from what said that I advocate treating people like garbage. On the contrary. I was simply stating that to hold true to biblical teachings can be difficult if you seek to please men rather than God. Paul was simply reminding Timothy that his duty was to preach the Word regardless of what men desired. God’s ways are not man’s ways, and we all are sinners. But when we follow Christ and His teachings, we must follow them in both spirit and truth. We are told to recognize and confess our sins to Him and then turn from that sin. You can’t continue in it but you are certainly forgiven for it. There is nothing hateful or malicious here. Just a simple desire not to be conformed to the world and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Sin begins in the mind and repentance begins in a redeemed heart willing to set sin aside as a sign of obedience to God.

  • Perhaps you should read the article just published today at RNS. Apparently, anti-gay religion is a part of the Gospels. Who knew?
    What I find interesting is that religion is frequently used as a justification for the antigay laws in Africa, the worse excesses now being proposed by those who call themselves Christian. Rather than denounce the laws that make this sin into a crime worthy of death or life imprisonment, the African branches of the Methodists are going to walk away from the American branch.
    Almost makes you wonder if its about sincere religious belief at all, dunnit?

  • Given what you responded to, it appears you are giving a long winded self serving response in order to avoid the central conflict here. Do you act judgmentally towards others or actually love thy neighbor? You appear to endorse the former and look to pot put of the latter.

  • I’m not sure I understand your point here. What is the central conflict as you see it? And what do you mean by “pot put?”

  • Pot put = I have big fingers, a small phone and a wonky auto-correct dictionary. The word was “avoid”. 🙂

  • Satan isn’t called the Great Deceiver for no reason.

    He has sent his minions into virtually every church in America to argue for acceptance of this perverted, unnatural sexual relationship and it has destroyed each and every single one of them.

    Wake up, people!!

  • Murder, lying, rape, genocide, fraud, theft goes on all around you with narry a word. But two adults in a consensual romantic relationship is what gets you in a tizzy?

    Get a grip.

  • How can you repent for being as god made you? I am sincere here. I came out 40 years ago and went through much soul searching, even to the point of a minor in world religions.

    I find nothing in the bible that pertains to married monogamous gay people. Nothing.

    What you are really saying is that gay people have to live a life of no partnership, no intimacy, no one special person for us in life. You say to people like me that god made us wrong and will be angry with us for being who were made to be.

    You are saying it is a sin for me to marry someone I can actually love, fully and completely, to have someone who brings me cold water on a hot day, who walks through the woods with me hand in hand, no one whose eyes light up when they see me, no one who makes my heart beat hard and my stomach flutter when they walk in the room. No one to hold when I cry, no one for me to hold when they do. No one to plan a future with, no one to say do you remember when to. No one special person for me, or my wife. Or any gay person. Could you live that way?

    I will say this, if there is a personal god, who wants me in hell for loving my partner, now wife, of 24 years this summer, I would rather be in hell than wit that god. There isn’t enough love in this world, we should celebrate people finding it, not tear them down because we wouldn’t choose the person they did.

  • I would never say for a moment that you were bound for hell for your situation. Never. That’s the beauty of a loving God who walks with us in whatever waters or fire that we are passing through in this world. This is not an eternal life issue as I believe, at all. It’s a this life issue. Our eternal destiny is not dependent on what we can do or can’t do. We have -had-a son who was killed in a car accident right after Christmas at the young age of 21 who had recently told us that he was gay. He had just graduated from college and had his whole life in front of him. We were heart broken. After he told us, we didn’t stop loving him for a moment. We didn’t condone his choice but he knew we loved him and our communion with him never ceased. Nor does God stop loving his children. No one can pluck us out of the hand of grace. His choices made this life difficult for him in ways that I won’t go into here. But his eternal life is assured by the grace of God. thankfully we are not judged by a task master who sees us with all our foibles and I use “our” deliberately, but a God who sees us through the sacrifice of the perfect love of Christ. The law was never meant to save. Nor could it. It was always Grace. Abraham died 400 years before the law was ever given. But it was his belief that was counted unto him for righteousness. Christ is Grace. For you, for me, for all of us in whatever condition we find ourselves in. We just give it all over to him and struggle to follow as best we can. God bless you.

  • And yet, most of the civilized denominations in the west disagree, including all but the Orthodox Jews. One the other hand, you get to be on the same side as the Muslims. Oh, well, birds of a fest her, and all that…

  • Wingers? Yeah, thats a common term used by “Correct the record” but you knew that.. online paid trolls make good money.

  • LOL!!!!! NO, it is not the cup of coffee. It is simply a spotlight for the Mighty Mouth the vent before an audience. No religion involved there.

  • Everything you just mentioned is a violation of the LAW and will get you JAIL. We are speaking here of preservation of our religious beliefs, granted to us by THE LAW. <

  • Debbie Ogle and Daulphin are two loving Christians who can discuss and agree to disagree.

  • I see an Orthodox Rabbi as a counselor. He admitted that Leviticus is only speaking of one mode of sex between men- that is the mode that does spread diseases more readily, and it doesn’t speak about Lesbianism. The word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6:9 also only means this particular mode of sex and does not mean Lesbian or gay orientation either. Most of the Jewish prohibitions against homosexuality *for Jews* were added on later in the tradition. Jewish tradition has much more reasonable expectations for gentiles. Most Christian tradition also is really “adding on” to what was in the Bible, such as a prohibition against “premarital sex,” which is NOT penalized in the Bible. On this basis, homosexuality is banned. Christians also exaggerated about Sodom and Gomorrah, which were destroyed because they neglected the poor and needy in Ezekiel 16:49.

  • So your prejudice against gays and desire to shun them is entirely arbitrary. Your religious beliefs appear to be dependent on treating people like garbage in an immoral fashion. You are entitled to your beliefs by law. You are not entitled to respect for them. You are still open to criticism on them.

  • No, he actually said he was against abortion, although Jewish law gives an exception for the life or health of a mother. Other Rabbis have given the same interpretation of Leviticus for homosexual acts as only referring to that one kind, but not the other.

  • That is correct. So far I have seen you get a lot of criticism. Maybe you should take some time to read it all again and pray about it. <

  • Well, actually, I am not a christian in my beliefs. I do try to follow the christ’s example, but I don’t worship anyone or thing as god. I don’t believe we can comprehend in any fashion the force that created all that is.

  • I apologize to interfere with this conversation, but as a retired bishop in the Brazilian Methodist Church, I also suffer with the enormous painful process that United Methodism has been suffering for many years now on this issue of gay rights. Decades ago, the United Methodist Church was trapped in an iron cage when decided to become a “global church”. At that time, the autonomous Latin American Methodist Churches refused the invitation to join the conversations about. They understood that was a wrong decision to reverse their autonomy conquered after a hard and painful process in the late 1960s. On the other hand, Latin American Methodists understood that “a global church” was a myth in a diverse and plural cultural world. The Gospel message must become provisionally incarnated in different cultural contexts, developing their historical processes in different momentums. To bring together into a General Conference from all over the world (with the remarkable absence of Latin America) churches (yes, churches, because UMC is a denominational conglomerate of many national Methodist Churches!!!) with enormous cultural diversity is to forget that globalization has hardened the struggle for preservation of local identities. The impasses verified in the UMC General Conferences now for about five decades have brought suffering for all sides involved in the issue of ecclesiastical procedures about gay rights in church life. Without any practical results. In my opinion, I would suggest that in order to overcome the present impasse on that controversial issue with the United Methodist Church, renouncing her fantasy about being a “global church” (or should I say instead, a “Methodist Catholic church”?) should consider developing a process to promote the autonomy of the African, Asian, and European churches, letting them to follow their different cultural experiences. Only then, North-American United Methodists would be able to decide if they wanted to be, or not, an inclusive church in the USA.

  • All religions see homosexuality as a crime against nature, along with incest and bestiality.

    It’s only the “reformed” Western churches (apostate churches) that accept this perversion of human nature as normal.

  • No more than anyone else. Macy’s belief and yours are harmful, hateful garbage. You use religion to vainly avoid criticism. Well it doesn’t work. It speaks badly of your faith and your interpretation of scripture to claim such beliefs are integral to them.

  • Daulphin, I respect that, and your willingness to listen to others. I would enjoy more input from you! Blessings to you.

  • Jesus asked…Luke 10:26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

    So, ¿How do you readest this…

    Romans 1:25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. 26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: 27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

    To those who does not know that the sodomy is a sin in the Bible, please read again this verse until God open their minds so they can see that there is not any difference betwwen one sin to another…it means that tha payment for sin is the same: the blood of Jesus in a rependance heart and mind.

    ¡Please do not go back to Egypto…go forward where the Heavenly Father is preparing a place for all who are preapring for His soon coming.

    http://www.apocalipsis14.com

  • I think your idea is a great one, except that it simply underlines what is obvious:
    God’s eternal, unchanging word is simply a matter of opinion, not a matter of unchanging truth set in tablets of stone, good for all peoples, in all places, and at all times.
    It underlines the other obvious truth: that the bible is not inerrant word of god, not the last word on any subject.

  • Obviously you are not a Christian. The book of Romans written to gentiles states that the truth of God was turned into a lie, and professing THEMSELVES to be wise became fools and God gave them up……. It seems He is infinitely more intelligent than all the revisionists. May I suggest you search for our Lord, yes He is yours also. He is the only way to salvation.

  • Never said I was a christian. Was raised Catholic, and have a minor in world religions. You are welcome to your interpretation of Romans, it’s no more or less valid than mine. It’s nothing but your opinion only that “he” is the only way to salvation. 7 billion people on the planet and you think you are the only one with the truth of our existence. That is the height of hubris, and one of the main reasons religious participation is falling off in America.
    There are as many ways to god as their are people. The christ, your Jesus, came to show you how to live, not to be worshiped as a god. But it’s too hard to live a christ like life, so much easier to say “he could do it because he was god” and then think you don’t have to live like he did to be “saved”. The buddhists tend to the same fallacy, and think enlightenment (heaven on earth) is only for the Buddha, not them.
    I am in no way a christian as you define it and never would be. Worshiping a god who created us, who asks a man to kill his son to prove he loves “god,” then hated the behavior he made us to have so badly he drowned the planet, and then later required a human sacrifice to preemptively forgive humans of sins not yet committed, would be to worship a pathological, abusive, entity in which I have no interest. If any person asked you to kill your son to prove your love, you would call them crazy, when “god” does it, it get s a pass. I saw that quite clearly as a child, the stories didn’t jive, the god they described is horribly inconsistent, and the bible promotes so much violence, that I was gone by 16. The crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the 30 years war, the puritan witch killers, the European witch killers, (a minimum of 50 to 60 thousand women killed between 1400 and 1700 for the crime of living alone and liking herbs and animals), while I care deeply and love many who are christian, too many people have died in the name of christ for me to give any credence to it’s practitioners beliefs.
    I am a deeply spiritual person who follows the teachings of christ, to love god and one’s neighbor, no middlemen required.

  • Because every other sin is called sin and people try to hide it and try to be transformed by a renewing of there mind through Christ Jesus because they believe it is wrong. This sin(homosexuality )the sinners say the Bible is interpeted in error and they want to openly live contrary to the Bible and want everybody else to agree with them that the Bible is wrong. I’m fine and I believe the church would be fine with them living a gay life style and leaving their sin between them and God but no they want the church to say God is wrong and they are right. That is the real issue. Either the entire Bible is true or none of it. It is not a buffet where you choose according to what you like or feel like. It is a plated meal. You may not eat what’s on your plate but that’s what you were served eat it or leave it.

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