In mid-May, demonstrators wearing rainbow-patterned stoles marched into the room where thousands of United Methodists had gathered for their much-anticipated denominational meeting in Portland, Ore. They chanted slogans calling for unity. During another meeting, gay-rights supporters, some lying on the floor with their hands and feet bound, called on bishops to change the denomination’s policies on homosexuality.
But the 864 delegates attending this year’s meeting of the United Methodist Church won’t have the opportunity to vote on the controversial topics of homosexual clergy and same-sex marriage. Instead—in an unprecedented move—they decided to allow the Council of Bishops to appoint a special commission to address those decisions sometime before the denomination’s next big meeting in 2020.
Those celebrating the decision said the bishops’ plan, developed at least in part as a response to pleas from the LGBTQ community, offered just the kind of leadership needed to move the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination forward.
But many delegates who voted against the bishops’ proposal, including some who traveled from as far as Africa and Russia to participate in the conference, expressed strong disappointment and frustration that their voices would not be heard on sexuality-related issues, especially since it isn’t clear who will be appointed to the commission.
“Why put off until tomorrow something we can do today?” asked Maurice Ngongo, a delegate from central Congo. “Today we are ready to speak to these issues.”
Disagreement on sexuality and marriage have caused a deep divide between conservatives and liberals in the 12.3 million-member United Methodist Church. Pro-gay rights supporters want approval for clergy to live an openly homosexual lifestyle and for clergy to officiate same-sex marriages. As of now, the church condones sexual relations only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
“I have a broken heart and, collectively, we have a broken heart,” said Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops. “Our hearts break over the pain, anger, anxiety, and disunity we have experienced in our beloved United Methodist Church and, quite frankly, in our council.”
Ough said the brokenness stems from differences in interpretation of Scripture fueled by “despair over the decline of the (United Methodist) church in America. We have risked exploring what many would consider to be radical ideas, ideas brought to the attention of the council by persons more conservative and more progressive among us.”
People with strong views, both conservatives and liberals, were vocal at the conference, but most church members are “in the middle,” said Jay Voorhees, a United Methodist pastor from Tennessee. The general conference request to the bishops, asking them to call for a special meeting, was unusual, he said. Voorhees acknowledged views embraced in Portland might be a “tougher sell” in Nashville.
Many on social media and at the conference questioned whether the church could remain united. Ough admitted “many believe we are out of time.”
Speaking about the commission, Ough said leaders are “deeply committed to making sure all the voices are at the table.” Asked whether those voices would include clergy who were removed from leadership after “coming out” as gay or lesbian, Ough re-emphasized that “all voices” would be heard.
United Methodists convene every four years to consider revisions to church law and approve plans and budgets. This year, about 1,000 legislative petitions were slated for consideration by the increasingly global church. Membership rose from 4.4 million to 5.1 million in Africa, Europe, and Asia between 2009 and 2014, while U.S. membership declined during the same period from nearly 7.7 million to 7.2 million.
Bishops have come under fire for not providing enough leadership, but Ough said the Council of Bishops is in an “interesting position” within the church because bishops can’t vote at the general conference and cannot speak without permission from the delegates.
“Everyone wants us to lead, provided we’re leading in their direction,” Ough said. “At the same time, our authority to lead in some direction is actually limited by our polity.”
Despite Ough’s claim of limitations, Adam Hamilton, pastor of the 20,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., pleaded with the bishops to do something.
“We in theory could find ourselves leaving on Friday still stuck and wounded,” he said.
In a blog post written just before the conference began, Hamilton said he hoped the denomination could be persuaded to remove all references to homosexuality from The Book of Discipline, returning it to the language used prior to 1972.
“Imagine the United Methodist Church without the incessant fighting over homosexuality,” he wrote.
— by Melinda Taylor