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Jan. 29, 2023

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Methodists vote for LGBTQ-friendly future

Conservatives say issue will only accelerate their departure from church

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Bishop Cedrick Bridgeforth addresses delegates, guests and his new episcopal colleagues shortly after his election on Nov. 4 at Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City. At left is his husband, Christopher Hucks-Ortiz.
Bishop Cedrick Bridgeforth addresses delegates, guests and his new episcopal colleagues shortly after his election on Nov. 4 at Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City. At left is his husband, Christopher Hucks-Ortiz. (patrick scriven/United Methodist News) Photo Gallery

The United Methodist Church moved toward becoming more progressive and LGBTQ-affirming during U.S. regional meetings this month that included the election of its second openly gay bishop. Conservatives say the developments will only accelerate their exit from one of the nation’s largest Protestant denominations.

Each of the United Methodist Church’s five U.S. jurisdictions — meeting separately in early November — approved similarly worded measures aspiring to a future where “LGBTQIA+ people will be protected, affirmed, and empowered.”

They also passed non-binding measures asking anyone to withdraw from leadership roles if they’re planning to leave the denomination soon — a category that almost entirely includes conservatives moving toward the exits.

The denomination still officially bans same-sex marriage and the ordination of any “self-avowed, practicing homosexual,” and only a legislative gathering called the General Conference can change that.

But this month’s votes show growing momentum — at least in the American half of the global church — to defy these policies and seek to reverse them during the next legislative gathering, slated for 2024.

Supporters and opponents of these measures drew from the same metaphor to say their church is becoming either more or less of a “big tent,” as the United Methodists have long been described as a theologically diverse, mainstream denomination.

“It demonstrates that the big tent has collapsed,” said the Rev. Jay Therrell, president of the conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association, which has been helping churches that want to leave the denomination.

“For years, bishops have told traditionalists that there is room for everyone in the United Methodist Church,” he said. “Not one single traditionalist bishop was elected. Moreover, we now have the most progressive or liberal council of bishops in the history of Methodism, period.”

But Jan Lawrence — executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, which works toward inclusion of Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities — applauded the regional jurisdictions. She cited their LGBTQ-affirming votes and their expansion of the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of bishops.

Jurisdictions elected the church’s first Native American and Filipino American bishops, with other landmark votes within specific regions, according to the United Methodist News Service.

“It is a big-tent church,” Lawrence said. “One of the concerns that some folks expressed is that we don’t have leadership in the church that reflects the diversity of the church. So this episcopal election doesn’t fix that, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Bishop Cedrick Bridgeforth, elected in the Western Jurisdiction meeting, agreed. He is the first openly gay African American man to be elected bishop. The vote comes six years after the Western Jurisdiction elected the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop, Karen Oliveto of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area.

The LGBTQ-affirming resolutions point “to the alignment of the denomination more with the mainstream of our country,” Bridgeforth said. “It can also help us begin to center our conversations where we have unity of purpose, rather than centering on divisions.”

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