United Methodists Tighten Ban on Same-Sex Marriage and Gay Clergy
ST. LOUIS — The United Methodist Church on Tuesday voted to strengthen its ban on gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex marriages, a decision that could split the nation’s second-largest Protestant church.
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After three days of intense debate at a conference in St. Louis, the vote by church officials and lay members from around the world doubled down on current church policy, which states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The vote served as a rejection of a push by progressive members and leaders to open the church to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Now, a divide of the United Methodist Church, which has 12 million members worldwide, appears imminent. Some pastors and bishops in the United States are already talking about leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.
“It is time for another movement,” the Rev. Mike Slaughter, pastor emeritus of Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio, said in a phone interview from the floor of the conference. “We don’t even know what that is yet, but it is something new.”
The decision, passed in a 53 percent to 47 percent vote, is the latest eruption in the fight over the future of American Christianity and over whose views of human sexuality are enshrined as Christian.
Conservatives have left the Episcopal Church over gay rights, Presbyterians have split, and many young evangelicals are leaving their churches over the lack of inclusion of L.G.B.T. people.
Meanwhile, the nation is becoming increasingly less Christian, and the share of religiously unaffiliated Americans is growing. As mainline denominations that embrace gay rights continue to decline in membership, conservative Christian institutions are growing in power and financial resources.
The seven million members of the United Methodist Church in the United States often do not fit within easy political categories. Second only to the Southern Baptist Convention in size, the church includes high-profile figures with a range of political beliefs, from Hillary Clinton to Jeff Sessions, the Republican former attorney general.
Just over half of Methodists say they are Republican, compared with 35 percent who say they are Democrats. The majority of adherents believe abortion should be legal, and more than half are in favor of stricter regulations to protect the environment.
But the issue of gay rights has proved uniquely divisive in the church, and Tuesday’s vote reflected the growing clout of Methodists from outside the United States. The tightening of enforcement of church law was backed by a coalition of members from African nations, the Philippines and European and American evangelicals.
While membership has steadily declined in the United States over the past 25 years — a trend that is true for most mainline Protestant denominations — it has been growing in Africa. About 30 percent of the church’s members are now from African nations, which typically have conservative Christian views; in many of them, homosexuality is a crime.
But in the United States, the vote poses a significant risk for a denomination that struggles to attract young people. United Methodists have one of the oldest religious populations in the country, with a median age of 57.
Some leaders of Methodist seminaries like Duke Divinity School or Candler School of Theology at Emory worry that this week’s move will dissuade young Americans, who increasingly support gay rights, from going into ministry with the church.
“This feels like one generation locking down the church for the next,” said William H. Willimon, a retired bishop of the United Methodist Church and a professor at Duke Divinity School. “That’s a death sentence.”
In recent years, progressive American members, including gays and lesbians, have been hopeful about greater inclusion. Six in 10 United Methodists in the United States believe homosexuality should be accepted.
Some congregations have celebrated same-sex weddings and had gay, lesbian and transgender pastors, at times receiving church approval to do so even though it technically violated church policy. Punishment of those who violated the rules has been uneven, and church trials for the few who were sanctioned have been unpopular.
[Read more here about the competing plans for the future of the United Methodist Church.]
The new rules would tighten enforcement and increase punishment for violations. For instance, clergy who officiate at same-sex weddings could receive a minimum one-year, unpaid suspension, and a second offense could result in removal from the clergy. Some items in the plan need to be reviewed by the Methodists’ judicial council.
The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, who leads one of the church’s prominent administrative agencies, called the plan “punitive” in a statement, and said that the conference had brought “unbearable pain” to the denomination. “The wound may one day be healed by the grace of God,” she said, “but the scar left behind will be visible forever.”
For many, the church’s slogan, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors,” now feels shattered.
Soon after the vote, protests erupted in the center of the arena where the conference had been held — a former football stadium known as The Dome. Some delegates began singing church songs and chanting, “We’re queer,” and “This is our church!”
“My kids’ friends are not going to come into the church unless I can tell them about the love part of our church, not just the judgment part,” said David Livingston, 45, a pastor from Kansas.
At the same time, conservatives celebrated their narrow victory. Tom Lambrecht, 64, an ordained elder from Texas, said the denomination must uphold its traditions if it is to survive. If progressives are ultimately unable to agree with that approach, he said it would be best for them to leave the denomination so that Methodists could devote more time on ministry and less on what he called “social issues.”
“We need to be faithful to the traditional standard of marriage,” he said. “No organization allows its members to consistently disobey the rules.”
Marina Yugay, a member from Russia, said that her concerns about same-sex marriage had made her uncomfortable with the more progressive direction of many American Methodists.
“We do need to praise God and multiply and same-sex marriage will not allow us to multiply,” she said. “If you do not agree with this, you are violating the law of the creator.”
What happens next hinges on questions that are not just theological, but financial. For entire congregations to leave, they would most likely need to reach settlement agreements related to the potential transfer of church property, and liabilities related to the church’s $23 billion pension fund.
Major seminaries at universities like Emory and Duke, which have supported their gay, lesbian, and transgender students, risk losing grants and funding from more influential, and conservative, churches.
Methodism has been a major force in American life since before the Revolutionary War, and eventually grew to include a significant African-American membership in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The denomination has split about a dozen times in its history, notably over slavery and race.
As the Methodist conference ended, truckloads of dirt were being readied outside the arena for a monster truck event. The hundreds of Methodist pastors began to leave, wondering how to move forward.
Matt Miofsky, 41, leads one of the fastest growing United Methodist churches in the country, called The Gathering in St. Louis.
“I want people to know that The Gathering, and a lot of churches like it all over the country, want to welcome L.G.B.T.Q. people,” he said. “We are going to pursue a fully inclusive vision for ministry.”
Timothy Williams reported from St. Louis, and Elizabeth Dias from Washington.
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