After a heated 24 hours of protests, emotional testimony and group prayer, the United Methodist Church decided Wednesday to delay a series of contentious votes on gay equality and instead create a body that will examine possibly rewriting church rules on human sexuality and restructuring to allow regional differences.
Progressives saw the vote as a victory in a global denomination fast tilting more and more conservative as it grows in Africa and Asia and shrinks in the West. However the measure that was approved passed narrowly, 428-405, and was unspecific — saying its main goal was “profound unity.” It was a proposal by the denomination’s Council of Bishops, and came near the end of a major, once-every-four-years meeting called the General Conference, a meeting defined this year by tension over the deep divisions regarding human sexuality.
“I count this decision as a victory for the LGBTQ cause, though our division is not yet reconciled,” the Rev. Frank Schaefer, an equality advocate and Methodist pastor, wrote on his blog. “There is much work to be done on our way toward full inclusion of our LGBTQ members in the United Methodist Church. It’s a small step in the right direction that gives me hope and strength. I hope that our bishops will take their mandate very seriously and will be able to lead us toward reconciliation and unity.”
United Methodists, like other global faith groups, have been struggling with how to reconcile different perspectives. Even within the United States, where the church is the third-largest faith group, there are a wide range of viewpoints on the place of gay couples and clergy. But global membership is moving in the conservative direction, and during the Conference the progressives were watching their many proposed measures advancing equality get voted down in subcommittees, while conservatives’ efforts to strengthen the rules were advancing.
United Methodist doctrine calls gay life “incompatible” with the Christian faith. There are other parts of the doctrine that are more welcoming toward LGBT people.
The vote Wednesday night in Portland, Ore., came one day after news leaked that bishops and various leaders were meeting over a plan to separate. Top bishops initially denied such a plan had advanced far, and called Tuesday for unity. But the rumors — and first-hand reports — made clear that separation was being considered at the highest-levels. The General Conference voted Tuesday night for the bishops to put forward some kind of plan to keep the denomination together.
The proposal by the Council of Bishops called for the dozens of votes on human sexuality expected to be taken at the conference — which ends Friday, after 10 days — to be deferred, and instead to “refer this entire subject to a special Commission, named by the Council of Bishops, to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality. We continue to hear from many people on the debate over sexuality that our current Discipline contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional and global contexts,” the bishops’ proposal reads.
“We believe that our unity is found in Jesus Christ; it is not something we achieve but something we receive as a gift from God. We understand that part of our role as bishops is to lead the church toward new behaviors, a new way of being and new forms and structures which allow a unity of our mission of ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world’ while allowing for differing expressions as a global church. Developing such new forms will require a concerted effort by all of us, and we your bishops commit ourselves to lead this effort. We ask you, as a General Conference, to affirm your own commitment to maintaining and strengthening the unity of the church. We will coordinate this work with the various efforts already underway to develop global structures and a new General Book of Discipline for our church,” it said.
The bishops said they may call a special General Conference in two or three years focused on this topic.
Yet several conservative United Methodists from Africa spoke Wednesday from the floor, demanding their chance to vote on measures aimed at shoring up the ban on gay life. Conservatives in the church have been pushing for trials and other punishment for United Methodist pastors who come out or who officiate at same-sex weddings. More than 100 gay clergy and seminary students — almost all American — came out just before the General Conference began.
United Methodists took to Twitter with various interpretations of what the vote meant:
Council of bishops proposes taking away from #umcgc right to discuss sexuality petitions, refer to a commission the bishops would control
— John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis) May 18, 2016
We passed the CofB proposal for moving forward on human sexuality. The implications aren't totally clear but it's a positive step #UMCGC
— Matt Miofsky (@mmiofsky) May 18, 2016
— Jack Jenkins (@jackmjenkins) May 18, 2016