The issue of homosexuality has long been a hot-button topic for the United Methodist Church, already leading to some churches leaving the denomination. At an international conference in St. Louis this week, leaders from the church deliberated over maintaining bans on gay clergy and same-sex weddings.
While other Protestant churches, including Presbyterian (U.S.A.) and Episcopal, have made allowances for homosexual-friendly practices, United Methodist has firmly retained its ban, despite mounting division and talk of a potential church split.
The second-largest Protestant denomination in America is now teetering on the edge of [a] breakup after the Traditional Plan gained support from 56 percent of the over 800 attendees at the 3-day conference. The Traditional Plan opts for keeping bans on the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” as well more strictly enforcing LGBT bans across all participating churches.
By contrast, the United Methodists’ main alternative option — the One Church Plan — would allow regional bodies and individual churches to decide on their own stances regarding gay clergy and same-sex marriage. It would also eliminate wording from the church’s law that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The One Church Plan was rejected in a second preliminary vote on Monday, receiving support from only 47 [percent] of delegates. The alternative plan was reportedly voted for by the majority of the Council of Bishops in an effort to avoid further division.
While the preliminary voting did not yet put an end to the One Church Plan, it is indicative of where the final vote will land. The deciding vote will not be made until the closing session on Tuesday, February 26.
Delegates ruled on Monday that discontented churches will be allowed to leave the United Methodist Church and still keep their property.
Evidence of the extreme tension within the church over the LGBT issue is surfacing widely.
“This is really painful,” remarked United Theological Seminary Dean David Watson, an attendee of the conference. “Our disagreement has pitted friend against friend, which no one wanted.”
The denomination boasts nearly 7 million members in the United States and 12 million worldwide. The majority backing for the Traditional Plan is due largely to its global participation, evidenced by the fact that 43 [percent] of attending delegates are from abroad, primarily Africa.
“We Africans are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics,” said Reverend Jerry Kulah of Liberia’s Methodist Theology School. “We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal church elite in the U.S.”
In spite of the official ban, several members of the clergy have still officiated homosexual marriages and come out as gay without penalty. If the Traditional Plan comes to pass, the church will call for much stricter and more regulated enforcement.
For Methodists identifying as homosexual, Tuesday’s vote marks a particularly pivotal moment.
“For me, it’s about who’s in God’s love, and nobody’s left out of that,” said Lois McCullen Parr, a church elder who identifies as bisexual. “The Gospel I understand said Jesus is always widening the circle, expanding the circle, so that everyone’s included.”