United Methodist Church to Split Over Same-Sex Marriage?

Delegates and visitors gather at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida. (UMNS/Kathleen Barry)
Delegates and visitors gather at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida. (UMNS/Kathleen Barry)

This month the Supreme Court will decide whether or not to make same-sex marriage legal in the United States. While the courts and lawmakers have been wrestling with the rights of gay and lesbian Americans, so too have the country’s churches. In recent decades, more than ever, Christian denominations have been debating what the Bible says about homosexuality and what it means for LGBT persons. Several mainline Christian denominations, from the Episcopal Church to the United Church of Christ, allow clergy to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies or blessings. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America grants congregations the power to decide the issue for themselves. And earlier this year, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to change its definition of marriage as a commitment “between two people,” not just between a man and a woman.

Despite rapid changes in church polity and public opinion, and with gay marriage now legal in all but 13 states, the nation’s largest mainline denomination—the United Methodist Church—remains officially opposed to same-sex marriage.

“I think that the Supreme Court decision will get attention,” said the Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops. “It will give encouragement to one side of the debate or the other, but I don’t expect the debate to change.”

Official United Methodist Church (UMC) policy holds that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth,” but that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”—dual principles that its critics find contradictory. Ordained clergy are prohibited from officiating same-sex weddings, and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” are forbidden from ordination. In 2004, around the same time Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex marriage, the UMC declared support for “laws in civil society that define marriage as the union between one man and one woman.”

There is widespread debate within the denomination over these stances. In polling, a majority of American Methodists support same-sex marriage, but in 2012, the church reaffirmed its LGBT policies at its General Conference, a global gathering of the denomination’s nearly 13-million members that happens every four years. Two prominent pastors offered a proposal to replace current church policy with a statement that noted the disagreement within the denomination, but it was voted down. Pro-LGBT protesters disrupted the proceedings, singing the hymn “What Does the Lord Require of You,” after a proposal to reverse church policy failed in a 368-572 vote.

The next year, in 2013, the UMC again made national headlines when the Rev. Frank Schaefer from Pennsylvania was put on trial for officiating his gay son’s wedding. Schaefer was found guilty and lost his ministerial credentials. He was later reinstated on appeal and is now a pastor in California.

Including Schaefer’s, there have been 13 public complaints against UMC clergy in the past two years for being LGBT or for officiating same-sex weddings, according to the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial organization of United Methodists working to make church policy LGBT-affirming. In the 45 years prior to Schaefer’s trial, there were only nine such complaints against clergy—about half of which occurred after 2004.

Some church watchers have predicted disagreements around homosexuality will bring the UMC to schism, much in the way it has disrupted the Anglican Communion. Some members have even suggested that a split is the church’s only option. Last May, the Good News movement, an organization that calls itself “the leading evangelical advocate” of the UMC, released a statement on behalf of more than 80 United Methodist pastors and theologians that called for a split in the denomination. The statement asserted a “need to recognize the reality that we – laity, clergy and even the Council of Bishops – are divided and will remain divided.”

The UMC boasts a diverse membership across the globe, and much of its growth is centered in more theologically conservative regions. Within the United States, it spans the political spectrum. After all, it is the church of both former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “The UMC may be the mainline denomination that has encompassed the broadest spectrum of viewpoints on homosexuality,” says Heather White, a scholar of American religious history and author of the upcoming book Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights. “They encompass, in one denomination, some of America’s earliest and most radical activists for LGBT rights and also some of the most adamant supporters of what has been called the Christian Right.”

But what will its stance on same-sex marriage mean for its membership going forward? The UMC, like most Christian denominations, is facing membership decline. The church lost more than 380,000 members from its rolls between 2009 and 2013. Though church attendance is on the wane for many reasons, Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has found that this trend happens in part because of the relationship between religion and LGBT issues, especially when it comes to how millennials identify with the church. (Disclosure: I have worked with PRRI in the past.) A quarter of Americans who left the religious affiliation of their childhood did so, at least in part, because of policies against LGBT people. PRRI also found that nearly 6-in-10 Americans think “that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.”

“The more than twenty percentage point shift in support for same-sex marriage over the past decade is virtually unparalleled compared to other issues,” Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, wrote in an email. He added, “Most notably, while only about one-third of religiously affiliated Americans supported same-sex marriage in 2003, nearly half—47 percent—do today.”

In many ways, the UMC’s struggles are a bellwether of the debates around LGBT rights taking place across the globe. As a lifelong United Methodist, I have watched this strife from the inside. But how are this denomination’s internal issues unique? And where can it go from here? While the rest of the country awaits the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, United Methodists on all sides of the issue are busy preparing for the 2016 General Conference to be held in Portland, Oregon, next May.

As a United Methodist friend and I discussed the denomination’s complicated maze of politics and belief, he commented with a mix of melancholy and hope in his voice, “If the Supreme Court rules in support of same-sex marriage this year and we don’t change, I don’t know what will happen.”

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SOURCE: Religion & Politics
Shannon Straw

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