The Christian denomination is considering schism, largely over LGBT issues. The fight shows the difficulty of trying to create a global church.
Methodists from around the world are in Portland this week for their General Conference, a big meeting about church teachings and laws that happens every four years. This year, at least, the delegates aren’t focused on bureaucratic minutiae. They are considering whether gay and lesbian pastors should be ordained, and whether same-sex couples should be able to be married in the church. Depending on what they eventually choose, they may effectively decide whether the denomination should schism.
The Methodists are not the first to face this existential challenge. LGBT issues have caused heartache among Catholics and Muslims and Mennonites; they’ve prompted Jews to reflect on their theology and Southern Baptists to dig in on theirs. But unlike Catholics, who are bound to follow the teachings of the hierarchy, or Southern Baptists, who are categorically opposed to homosexuality, Methodists have to find coherence within a global, democratic church that embraces a vast range of positions. The denomination’s Book of Discipline, its set of guidelines and teachings, says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and many churches agree with that position. Pastors who ordain gay ministers or perform gay weddings can be tried by the Church for their actions. Despite these possible consequences, a number of pastors have started rebelling against this teaching in recent years, officiating same-sex marriage ceremonies or coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
People sometimes complain about making “decisions by committee,” seeing consensus as the enemy of clarity. Just imagine what it’s like to make decisions by a committee of 850 delegates who come from places as diverse as Africa, Texas, Portland, and the Philippines. Bishops do lead the denomination, but as Boston University professor Dana Robert wrote in an email, “the bishops are not actually able to act independently on these kinds of issues without explicit permission from the General Conference, which is the highest authority in the church.” The United Methodist Church is a “big democracy,” she said—“we don’t have a pope like the Catholics.”
But this week, the Conference asked the bishops to take an unusual leadership role—to guide the denomination through discussions of its policies on LGBT weddings and pastors. Bruce Ough, the president of the Council of Bishops, said during the meeting Wednesday that it was the first time, to his knowledge, such an extensive ask has been made, which speaks to both the seriousness and desperation of the situation.
Early in the week, rumors of schism spread. A small group of bishops, including Ough, reportedly got together to discuss the possibility of splitting the denomination into three parts, according to The Washington Post: conservative, moderate, and progressive. But leaders pushed back on the idea of breaking apart, and on Wednesday, Ough recommended that the Conference “defer all votes on human sexuality,” instead forming a commission to review and possibly revise the denomination’s policies on sexuality. “We continue to hear from many people on the debate over sexuality that our current discipline contains language that is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for a variety of local, regional, and global contexts,” he said. The body of delegates accepted these recommendations. Based on the findings, the denomination may or may not convene on this issue again before the next General Conference in 2020.
This doesn’t mean the way forward is clear, though. “I don’t even want to think about two to four more years of divisiveness, distrust, confusion, living in tension, demonstrations, acts of disobedience,” said one delegate during discussion on Wednesday after the initial announcement. “We’re here, and we were elected to come here and do something in 2016,” said another. Later, a young man stood up. “Quit being afraid to stand for what you believe in,” he said. “This is what the gospel teaches.”
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