Descriptively speaking, there is nothing more Methodist than fighting over sexuality and gender. Last week’s vote was part of an argument that extends back a half-century, to 1968. That year, Methodists formally became “United” as a result of denominational mergers and the decision to integrate African American jurisdictions into the mainstream structure of the church.
This union was fractious from the start, as the new denomination gathered a membership that was — and still is — as politically diverse as the American electorate. In the subsequent efforts to formulate church teaching, homosexuality has been a regular, and controversial, issue for debate.
The process for making these decisions mirrors the American political process. Every four years, Methodists gather for the General Conference, which decides the formal teaching and policies of the church. The terms of the discussion appeal to what God would want, but the mechanism for making decisions is identical to that of a secular democracy: Elected representatives vote, and the majority wins. It’s a very rational way to make decisions, but the problem with majority rule is the same in the church as it is in Congress: When the community is deeply and fairly equally divided, the vote does not settle the conflict.
The first General Conference met in 1972, which was when the denomination passed its first statement on homosexuality.
This first statement reflected a battle between a newly organized caucus of conservative traditionalists and a growing Methodist advocacy movement that was pushing for LGBTQ rights. The conservatives were part of the Good News Movement, founded in 1966, which sought to represent Methodism’s “Silent Minority” of orthodox Christians and aimed to reform the denomination’s purported liberal bureaucracy.
Their opponents were a vanguard of clergy and laity who had been radicalized by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. This group of Methodist activists hailed from congregations in areas struggling with poverty and blight — sites adjacent to the increasingly visible LGBTQ subcultures of urban areas.
The pro-LGBTQ Methodist movement included ministers such as Cecil Williams and Lloyd Wake, both of whom served at Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Williams and Wake, respectively African American and Japanese American, explained that their experiences of race-based prejudice helped put them in solidarity with all marginalized communities. They and other Glide clergy joined gay and transgender activists in opposing endemic police harassment and arrest, and they were among the clergy signatories to a 1965 “Brief of Injustices” that decried the legal and social oppression of gays and lesbians.
While Williams and Wake helped spearhead this pro-LGBTQ Methodist movement, it was not limited to conventionally liberal cities like San Francisco and New York. Indeed, the support of clergy and congregations was often even more important in conservative locales.
The ecumenical Protestant journal Christian Century published a remarkable article in 1969 about Methodist involvement in a meeting of gay and lesbian organizations in Kansas City. One of the attendees, the Rev. Paul Jones, wrote a defense of same-sex marriage after officiating two such weddings in 1968. Jones also argued that church support for LGBTQ communities should not stop at officiating marriage; churches should also open their doors as social centers for mutual aid, proving “communication and outreach, counseling services, especially for teenagers but also for others, [and] community support.” In short, churches should serve as a vehicle for the “moral legitimacy” of stigmatized queer communities.
At the 1972 General Conference, this growing movement for LGBTQ rights directly clashed with the emerging traditionalist caucus. At issue was a statement of denominational support for gay and lesbian civil rights, which was proposed as part of a new Statement of Social Principles. The text of the document, as originally drafted, included support for homosexual civil rights as part of a list of issues — including decriminalization of abortion, a belief in gender equality and support for conscientious objectors to war — that showcased the denomination’s progressive leanings.
But it was homosexuality that triggered the strongest opposition during the floor debate at the General Conference. What began as a call to support gay and lesbian civil rights became something quite different, as conservative delegates amended the language during parliamentary debate.
Neither side had a clear majority; each was compelled to compromise and succeeded in inserting a phrase reflecting its viewpoint into the formal document. As a result, the Social Principles included conflicting assertions, assuring members that gays and lesbians were persons of “sacred worth” while also alleging that homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The 1972 battle set a pattern. Every four years the two sides grappled at the General Conference, each time producing slightly revised but still incoherent versions of the Social Principles. The anti-LGBTQ traditionalists continued to command an increasingly narrow majority of voting delegates and thus cast the deciding vote for formal denominational policy.
But while this majority has ensured that a formal condemnation of homosexuality would remain denominational policy, the language obscures the ongoing ways that the pro-LGBTQ Methodist movement has persisted and gained ground at the grass-roots level.
The Methodist Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization that connects congregations that welcome the LGBTQ community, now claims over 900 congregations. This week’s vote for the Traditional Plan passed with just 53 percent, with nearly half of the voting delegates dissenting.
This narrow margin of victory for anti-LGBTQ traditionalists reflects shifts in American Methodist churchgoers. Current surveys indicate that the majority — six out of 10 — of Methodists in the United States want their denomination to be more accepting of LGBTQ people. In fact, the conservative block is holding on to its majority in part because of the growing representation of international delegates at the General Convention, who represent churches in regions of the world that strongly condemn homosexuality. While pro-LGBTQ Methodism is growing in these regions as well, it remains a distinct minority.
When the Methodist pro-LGBTQ movement began, the aim was to make churches into sanctuaries from social and legal violence. The irony today is that the greatest opposition to pro-LGBTQ Methodists now comes from within their own denomination. That opposition portrays the trend toward increasing LGBTQ tolerance as a byproduct of secular influence, and stokes fears of secularization to maintain its grip on denomination policy.
But this viewpoint is flawed. It makes far more sense to see the trend toward acceptance as the expression of a long and determined tradition, made up of people who show up every four years for another round of bruising debate not because they want to fit in with their secular neighbors but because they see the work of LGBTQ justice as a divine calling. They are in this fight because they are Methodist. That their opposition is also Methodist does not make their tradition any less part of the faith.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the General Conference as the General Convention.