Trying to avoid split, United Methodist pastors propose new approach to gay rights issues

Hundreds of American pastors from the United Methodist Church have signed a proposal released Friday that aims to keep the global denomination of 12.5 million members from splitting over the issue of homosexuality.

It offers churches and regional bodies the option to make up their own minds on issues like affirming gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

The proposal, titled “A Way Forward,” includes some prominent pastors, including Adam Hamilton, who leads an 18,000-member church in Kansas and delivered the sermon at President Obama’s 2013 inaugural service, and David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

Like many other religious denominations in the West, the United Methodist Church has been roiled in recent years over different views of human sexuality. Methodism, unlike some other denominations, is global and is seeing its more conservative branches in Africa and Asia become bigger and more influential.

The proposal had no signers from outside the United States.

Rev. Frank Schaefer was defrocked last year for officiating his son's same-sex marriage in 2007. Since losing his credentials, Schaefer has been a leading voice for equality inside the United Methodist Church, but he wasn’t always open minded. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

The denomination generally deals with such issues once every four years at their General Conference, but recent conferences have ended with no movement toward compromise.

In the United States, the Episcopal Church has faced a significant breakaway movement over the issue, with dozens of congregations leaving and tens of millions of dollars subsequently spent on litigation over disputed church properties.

“The Church leaders that offer this proposal believe that the current debate is virtually irresolvable if left to the choices that the General Conference has been faced with recently. These leaders believe division would be shortsighted, costly, detrimental to ALL local congregations, and out of step with God’s will,” Friday’s statement read.

“One side believes the ‘practice of homosexuality’ is incompatible with Christian teaching. That is what’s written into the UMC Book of Discipline. The other side believes that scriptures related to homosexuality reflect the values of the time period in which scriptures were written more than the timeless will of God.”

It wasn’t possible to get immediate comment from the leaders of the traditional wing of the church, but the proposal came a few weeks after a group of conservative pastors issued a call of their own for “a way forward” that sounded more like a request to split.

“Are we not at a point where we can acknowledge, after years of dialogue and debate, the depth of our differences and together, progressives and traditionalists, give each other the freedom to pursue our understanding of God’s will? Can we not learn from the pain that other mainline denominations have experienced . . . A way where there are no winners and losers, but simply brothers and sisters who part ways amicably, able to wish each other well?” read the May 22 statement from some 80 pastors and theologians.

The statement in May said talk of compromise was not realistic.

“Talk of a ‘middle-way’ or of ‘agreeing to disagree’ is comforting and sounds Christ-like. However, such language only denies the reality we need to admit. Neither side will find ‘agreeing to disagree’ acceptable.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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