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United Methodists prepare for votes on lifting LGBTQ bans and other issues at General Conference

By Associated Press
Published: April 29, 2024, 3:13pm

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — United Methodist delegates are heading into the homestretch of their first legislative gathering in five years — one that appears on track to make historic changes in lifting their church’s longstanding bans on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.

After a day off on Sunday, delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church resumed their work Monday and will be meeting all this week before wrapping up their 11-day session on Friday

They’ve already begun making historic changes: On Thursday, delegates overwhelmingly endorsed a policy shift that would restructure the worldwide denomination into regional conferences and give the U.S. region, for the first time, the same right as international bodies to modify church rules to fit local situations.

That measure — subject to local ratification votes — is seen as a way the U.S. churches could have LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage while the more conservative overseas areas, particularly the large and fast-growing churches of Africa, could maintain those bans.

But whether that measure maintains church unity remains to be seen. The General Conference comes as the American portion of the United Methodist Church, long the nation’s third-largest denomination, has shrunk considerably. One-quarter of its U.S. churches left between 2019 and 2023 amid conservative dismay over the church’s failure to enforce its LGBTQ bans amid widespread defiance.

A proposal to overturn those bans is headed to the delegates this week, and progressives are optimistic that they have the votes to realize their long-held dream.

Bishop Karen Oliveto of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area, the first openly lesbian bishop ordained in the church, said the tenor of the current conference is positive.

“The delegates are listening to each other, learning from each other, really providing a foundation for the work this week,” she said. “There have been hard conversations, but again this tone that we’re in this together. And we have a witness to make to the world that’s unified even in the midst of cultural differences.”

The denomination has debated homosexuality for more than half a century. Its Book of Discipline bans “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from the clergy and forbids clergy from presiding at same-sex marriages. It also forbids church funding of any advocacy for the “acceptance of homosexuality.”

But legislative committees last week overwhelmingly approved several proposals liberalizing the church’s stance on sexuality. They included one committee that voted 43-9 to overturn the ban on LGBTQ clergy.

The delegates will also vote on a new set of Social Principles — a wholesale revision of an existing set of non-binding statements — which also received overwhelming committee approval last week. The new version omits the previous version’s declaration that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” And it defines marriage as a sacred covenant between “two people of faith,” without specifying gender.

Such changes could portend a further fragmentation of the international church. Delegates last week approved the departure of a small but notable part of the body — about 30 churches in Russia and other former Soviet countries, where conservative views on LGBTQ issues are strong.

Some are proposing that African and other churches be given the same chance that U.S. churches recently had to disaffiliate under favorable terms, including U.S. churches that missed the earlier deadline to do so, but a committee vote recommended against such measures.

Opponents say they already have mechanisms to depart, as some have recently done, but proponents say existing rules are burdensome.

Jerry Kulah of the advocacy group Africa Initiative said that while it will be up to individual conferences in Africa to decide whether to stay or leave the denomination, he believes it’s time to leave.

“We cannot remain in this marriage,” he said. “We can’t be one church preaching different gospels.”

A large majority of African bishops, while affirming their opposition to LGBTQ ordination or marriage, have said in a joint statement they are committed to remaining in the United Methodist Church.

The denomination had until recently been the third largest in the United States, present in almost every county. But its 5.4 million U.S. membership in 2022 is expected to drop once the 2023 departures are factored in.

The denomination also counts 4.6 million members in other countries, mainly in Africa, though earlier estimates have been higher.

Conservative advocacy groups say U.S. churches that didn’t meet the 2023 deadline should have the option of disaffiliating, too — along with the more than 7,000 that have already done so.

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The denomination also will be debating policy stances regarding fossil fuels and other issues as well as voting on major budget cuts to denominational programs, reflective of losing thousands of congregations.

The Rev. Tracy Cox, lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, said she’s cautiously hopeful for changes to the rules on ordination and marriage. The congregation, which has long been LGBTQ-affirming, held a commissioning service on April 14 for those attending the General Conference.

“If you are called by God to be an ordained elder or deacon, no church, no institution should step in that way,” Cox said. “And as far as marriage goes, when somebody falls in love with someone, we need to be able to help them to raise a family or to be a family in the community where they’re going to serve.”

Added Tracy Merrick, a member of the congregation and a delegate: “It will say to the world about us that we really stand behind our statement that we are a church of open hearts, open minds, and open doors.”

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.