CT — One of the world’s largest Christian denominations faces potential fracture as United Methodist leaders gather to finally decide how to navigate deep divisions over gay marriage, ordination, and ministry.
The United Methodist Church (UMC) meets Saturday through Tuesday to weigh options to address the differing convictions on the issue, including some that would lead one side or the other to leave the denomination.
This special session of its General Conference, a denominational decision-making body made of around 1,000 delegates, represents the culmination of years of passionate debate about the application of scriptural teachings, particularly when it comes to issues around sexuality.
There’s a lot at stake. Beth Ann Cook, a UMC minister and clergy delegate, said the issue comes down to “how we interpret and apply Scripture in our daily lives,” and she’s praying that “delegates fully and honestly face the depth of our divisions.”
“While this General Conference is about much more than LGBTQ justice and inclusion for the United Methodist Church, we are at this juncture because of the discrimination against LGBTQ people in the church,” said Jan Lawrence, whose Reconciling Ministries Network advocates for the UMC to change its longstanding policies and language around homosexuality.
Since its first official statement on homosexuality in 1972, the denomination has tried to mark out a middle ground of grace and traditional orthodoxy, stating that “homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are person of sacred worth” while still considering “the practice of homosexuality … incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Decades later, with half the 12.5 million-member denomination located outside the US, the UMC’s historic position has become the source of heated debates at the General Conference gatherings, held every four years. The clashes have intensified as protestors eager to see the denomination change its stance interrupt deliberations and in one case, a demonstrator threatened to jump from a balcony.
This dissent has been going on for well over 20 years. By now, some pastors and bishops violate the prohibitions on same-sex marriage outright, and several regional bodies have chosen to ordain and commission openly gay clergy and a bishop.
Many in the United States consider the UMC a more progressive denomination, though they have officially held a more traditional position on sexuality, voting to add statements barring ordination for “practicing homosexuals” in 1984 and same-sex marriage ceremonies in 1996.