The United Methodist Church is grappling with the latest biblical interpretation and civil rights issue in U.S. churches — how to address sexuality regarding who can be ordained and whether same-sex marriages can be performed by Methodist clergy.
A specially called General Conference, the top governing body in the United Methodist Church, convened in St. Louis, Missouri at the end of February to specifically address this issue. Delegates from across the globe gathered for a discussion and vote where 53 percent of the delegates (438 to 384) approved staying the course.
For Methodist churches, that means lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) individuals are welcomed into the church, but cannot be ordained into the ministry nor married in the church.
Many in the U.S. Methodist Church, including two-thirds of the Council of Bishops, were advocating a “One Church” option that would allow individual conferences, congregations and clergy more latitude on the issue, said retired UMC Bishop Lawrence McCleskey, who lives at Lake Junaluska and has been closely following the issue.
However, about 40 percent of the delegates to the international conference are from African countries where homosexuality is a reason to be jailed, or even put to death in some places. It was the international votes that tipped the balance in favor of the traditional path, McCleskey said.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of Methodists who favor this route, he stressed. Indeed, those supporting the traditionalist plan such as Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, pointed to a survey showing there are far more moderate and traditional thinkers in the church than there are progressives.
In an essay titled “Are Traditionalists Only a Small Group Within the Denomination,” Lambrecht wrote that “adopting a nontraditional understanding of human sexuality risks alienating a substantial portion of the church.”
In addition, the conservative members are more regular attendees than the progressives, he wrote, and there are other theological differences within the church “that reflect the deep-seated differences between groups that are playing out now in the conflict over human sexuality and marriage.”
Many evangelicals think they can no longer support an agenda at odds with their beliefs, he contended, and even if half of this group were to leave, the church would lose one-fifth of its members in the U.S.
McCleskey wrote a paper titled, “Freedom and Connectionalism — The Weslyn Way,” that was available on a number of church-related websites.
In the document, McCleskey recounted the almost 50-year debate around homosexuality in the church and how the original language in the church’s Book of Discipline — the denomination’s guiding doctrine — states that homosexuals, no less than heterosexuals, are persons of sacred worth entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.
Subsequent language was added stating the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian “teaching,” a word McCleskey argues is significant as it is separate from “doctrine,” a legally binding part of the Book of Discipline. Thus, as a “teaching,” the subject of human sexuality should be considered part of the church’s social principles and not mandatory to follow.
His paper cites a number of social issues such as health care, gambling or greenhouse gases, to name a few, where individual churches, church members and even regional conferences are free to disagree.
Through the years, individual conferences have used the “teaching” part of rules to ordain gay clergy members and remain silent on clergy who perform same-sex marriages.
Those who object can follow a formal complaint process on a case-by-case basis to resolve the issue. It was after Karen Oliveto was elected the church’s first openly gay bishop, however, that LGBTQ issues came to a head, prompting the special conference, church leaders indicate.
McCleskey said, to his knowledge, there have been no LGBTQ individuals ordained in this region, but there was a high-profile story about a Methodist minister in Charlotte who performed a same-sex marriage a few years back.
While McCleskey was present at the St. Louis conference, he noted bishops preside over conference procedures but can’t be voting delegates.
The Feb. 26 vote is not the end of the issue, McCleskey said. The vote will not take effect until January 2020, so there will be no immediate change within the church, either internationally or locally.
“Going forward, we’ve got a Judicial Council, which is the church’s version of a supreme court,” McCleskey said. “It’s a nine-person body and global. It makes rulings on constitutionality of actions. A number of pieces of the traditional plan are awaiting constitutional rulings. Some parts of the traditional plan were ruled on before the vote was taken, and half of the traditional plan rules were unconstitutional before they were ever approved. Questions remain about other aspects.”
The Judicial Council won’t meet until late April, and then there’s the 2020 upcoming General Council gathering, an event that happens every four years where all portions of the Book of Discipline can be subject to discussion and revision.
In preparation for that conference, annual conferences will be electing new delegates, which means there will be a different group of individuals considering the issue next year, he noted.
There has been widespread speculation that this issue could lead to a church split as it has with the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other Protestant denominations that have tackled the issue of inclusivity.
McCleskey said he doesn’t foresee any consequences to the United Methodist Church membership until there is a more definitive ruling.
If the traditional view is upheld, congregations that don’t agree with the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline could have a hard time hanging on to their church structures and property, even though local funds bought the property and built the church.
That’s because court rulings in the U.S. have upheld the trust clause, McCleskey said, a part of English civil law that maintains that local church organizations simply hold property in trust for the United Methodist Church.
“It’s been tested in courts repeatedly and repeatedly upheld, so it is hard to leave the church and take the property,” McCleskey said. “It comes down to what’s negotiated.”