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United Methodists may never agree on LGBT issues. Can they stay together anyway?

A scene from the 2016 pre-General Conference orientation for Africa Central Conference heads of delegations in Harare, Zimbabwe, Feb. 12-15. ( Photo by Greg Nelson, Oregon-Idaho Conference)
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The global United Methodist Church begins its once-every-four-years legislative meeting Tuesday, and the focus has been on whether to change or keep the denomination’s rejection of homosexuality. But a broader question is up for a vote: What do the 13 million Methodists from Africa to Asia to America have in common?

In a globalized, polarized time, it’s a question that could be asked of many faith groups, from Catholics and Jews to Muslims and Mormons. For the next 10 days, it will be put to the United Methodists, with hundreds of delegates from around the world hashing out more than 1,000 proposals on topics from abortion and whether to digitize hymnals to potentially divesting from businesses connected with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Disputes over human sexuality appear to many to be most pressing. This is in part because United Methodists have not changed their stance on homosexuality, whereas much of mainline Protestantism has in some way. The United Methodist Book of Discipline – the group’s book of law and doctrine – calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The church has also seen huge controversy in recent years as pastors have begun openly bucking the ban on officiating at same-sex weddings, and high-profile disciplinary trials have embarrassed many Methodists.

The protesting minister who has slept in a tent for months leading up to this meeting

In an effort to press the issue, 111 LGBT United Methodist clergy and clergy in training — about 80 percent who have not been out to their leadership — signed a letter released Monday to the conference, according to Reconciling Ministries, a group that advocates for full equality in the denomination.

“We want you to know we still love you and seek to remain in relationship with you,” the letter reads. Even if the convention adopts more restrictive language against queer people, “know that God will continue to move mysteriously in the hearts of LGBTQ young people and adults and will call them to serve within this denomination.  You cannot legislate against God’s call.”

A Cincinnati pastor this past weekend married his longtime male partner in a ceremony marked with talk of the conference. Conservative Methodists have in recent years made an intense push to hold such clergy – even those who do it privately – accountable with trials.

Frank Schaefer, a pastor in Pennsylvania, was tried in a conference center gym in 2013, convicted and stripped of his credentials for officiating privately at his son’s wedding years earlier. He was reinstated after an appeal.

Pastor Frank Schaefer never expected to speak for gay rights. His son’s gay wedding changed everything

According to the United Methodist News Service, the conference will weigh more than 100 pieces of legislation on human sexuality. Delegates from dozens of countries will consider the possibility of full inclusion of LGBT people, the “agree to disagree” option, whether gay people can be ordained, the question of officiating at same-sex weddings, whether such weddings can be held in Methodist churches and whether the current Book of Discipline wording should remain.

The topic isn’t new. The Columbus Dispatch, in its reporting on the wedding Saturday of the Rev. David Meredith and Jim Schlachter, said the denomination has been discussing sexuality every four years since 1972. Of the 32,4000 United Methodist congregations in the United States, more than 700 are part of the pro-equality Reconciling Ministries Network, it said.

But things have been escalating. And Methodists saw Episcopalians – the U.S. wing of Anglicanism – in dozens of congregations break away from their church a decade ago after the denomination became more officially welcoming. Tens of millions in church money was spent litigating the rights to church property.

United Methodists are wary of such division. And they also are cautious about change. But it is inevitable because of the way the church has spread. While the denomination was formally created in the United States in 1968, its roots go much farther back to England. This month, 30 percent of the conference delegates come from Africa, where Methodists tend to be much more conservative on issues of homosexuality. Roughly half of members in the denomination are from the United States.

The United Methodist News Service lists “church structure and powers” as the first of top, broad issues to be voted upon this month. The most broad is a measure asking whether Methodists “can create a global Book of Discipline that says: ‘Here’s what we agree upon worldwide,’ and then one for each area of the world to help us deal with our own cultures,” said the Rev. Tom Berlin, a delegate from the Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Va. “The issue is: What questions belong to the whole, and what questions belong to the parts?”

Can United Methodists agree to disagree over gay marriage?

On Monday, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Hillary Clinton – a longtime United Methodist – responded to a request from a major Jewish organization about her view on four measures proposing the church divest from three companies that activists say work “to sustain Israel’s West Bank settlement enterprise.” In January, the United Methodists’ pension fund removed five Israeli banks from its portfolio, “saying the investments were counter to its policies against investing in ‘high risk countries’ and to remain committed to human rights.

In a letter dated May 8 to the Israel Action Network, Clinton said she opposes the movement to divest in Israel – called BDS, for boycott, divestment and sanctions. She did not directly mention the church, JTA reported.

“I know you agree that we need to make countering BDS a priority, and that we need to work together — across party lines and with a diverse array of voices — to reverse this trend with information and advocacy, and fight back against further attempts to isolate and delegitimize Israel,” Clinton’s letter says. “I believe that BDS seeks to punish Israel and dictate how the Israelis and Palestinians should resolve the core issues of their conflict.”