The United Methodist Church (UMC) took a major step toward a possible reorganization on Wednesday, creating a commission to decide whether the largest American mainline Christian denomination should restructure so it can ordain LGBT people and allow pastors to officiate same-sex marriages.
The announcement came as thousands of Methodists gathered in Portland, Oregon for the UMC’s General Conference, an event held every four years where leaders debate and vote on matters of church governance. This year the most anticipated topic of discussion has been LGBT issues — a massive point of contention for the church, whose official Book of Discipline currently condemns homosexuality and prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
More than 100 overtures regarding sexuality were proposed for the conference, but pro-LGBT activists say everything ground to a halt when news broke that bishops have been meeting for months to discern whether the church should find a new structure — or even potentially a schism — to grant bishops the ability to institute LGBT-friendly policies within their areas of responsibility. Bishops initially denied that they had met on the topic, but introduced a measure on Wednesday morning that would create a commission to decide whether to restructure the church and usher in various levels of LGBT equality.
The motion would table all other votes regarding sexuality at the conference, but empower the commission to call a special emergency conference whenever it reached a decision — something that has never happened in UMC history.
On Wednesday evening — after a lengthy and contentious back-and-forth regarding parliamentary procedure — the conference voted 428 to 405 to adopt the measure.
[This] is just a beginning, but it signals hope to an end of church trials, to celebrating all marriages, to accepting the gifts of our LGBTQ candidates for ministry, clergy and lay employees.
Supporters of equality were unsure of how to interpret the vote, which maintains the status quo but opens the potential for dramatic change in the coming years.
“This historic action by the Council of Bishops (COB) represents a significant institutional shift in the direction of inclusion and equality,” read a statement from Matt Berryman, Executive Director of Methodist LGBT advocacy group Reconciling Ministries Network. “It is just a beginning, but it signals hope to an end of church trials, to celebrating all marriages, to accepting the gifts of our LGBTQ candidates for ministry, clergy and lay employees.”
“This is the first time the COB has put their collective voice around the urgent cries for change and acceptance,” he added. “We applaud their efforts knowing that the real work lies ahead. We call on the Council to act quickly and deliberately and to lead the church as promised. Today, we commit to hold the COB accountable for finally bringing justice to The United Methodist Church.”
UMC members have spent years wrangling over whether to allow bishops to ordain LGBT people and give pastors the ability to officiate same-sex marriages, with the debate typically hinging on a demographic question: According to the Public Religion Research Institute, a notable majority of American Methodists support same-sex marriage, but they are often outvoted by a coalition of domestic conservatives and representatives from UMC churches outside the United States.
But this year a groundswell of pro-LGBT activism sprung up ahead of General Conference, with left-leaning Methodists calling for the church to embrace same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly bisexual, transgender, lesbian, and gay people. Last week, a group of more than 100 UMC clergy came out as LGBT, inspired by an earlier effort in New York where 15 ministers did the same. Since then, 28 current and retired UMC bishops published a letter supporting the out clergy members, and a group of more than 500 LGBT clergy from other denominations — most hailing from groups such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopal Church, which already ordain and marry LGBT people — published a letter in solidarity with their UMC brethren. Meanwhile, more than 2,300 UMC clergy members have signed a letter declaring they will not comply with the Book of Discipline’s dismissal of sexuality, vowing to ordain people regardless of their sexual preference and refuse to replace LGBT ministers who are removed from pulpits. Signers also said they would not participate in trials of colleagues who are brought up on charges simply for being publicly LGBT — a tactic some progressive bishops have used for several years.
Ministry is best done when there is honesty. I knew that I had to tell people who I was before I could minister to them.
The convention center has also been awash with on-the-ground activism organized by pro-LGBT groups such as the Love Your Neighbor Coalition. Ministers stood outside the conference doors on Monday as voting delegates entered, their hands tied with rainbow stoles as they sang the hymn “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds”; a day later, several of the 111 out clergy members also lined up next to both conference center entrances, brandishing the stoles of people who were reportedly denied ordination because of their sexuality; others placed rainbow colored duct tape over their mouths to imply they were being silenced at General Conference; and another group performed an unofficial ordination service for Sue Laurie, a longtime LGBT activist and out lesbian.
Among the activists was Jarell Wilson, a Methodist seminary student who was also one of the 111 ministers who came out last week.
“I needed to do this,” Wilson said, referring to his activism and his decision to publicly identify as LGBT. “This is a part of being a minister with integrity. Ministry is best done when there is honesty. I knew that I had to tell people who I was before I could minister to them.”
Wilson and others welcomed the new commission, but were concerned about who would serve on it.
“I’m satisfied with the idea, but I am hesitant until I see who is invited to participate in this,” Wilson said.