Hundreds of United Methodist pastors have signed a proposal aimed at avoiding a schism over homosexuality in a denomination that has, until recently, largely sat out the gay equality movement.
The proposal, “A Way Forward,” offers churches and regional bodies the option to make up their own minds on such issues as affirming gay clergy and same-sex marriage. United Methodist doctrine says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Conservatives and some gay rights advocates immediately expressed skepticism about the model, which offers an unusual middle path at a time when full equality is considered a foregone conclusion to many Americans.
But others said the proposal reflects a hope that the country’s second-largest Protestant denomination won’t let itself fall into multimillion-dollar litigation over church properties the way other faith group, including the Episcopal Church, have on this issue.
“I experience United Methodists by and large as people who live in the middle. I think they are intelligent and loving, and I think they have the ability to live in community even if they disagree over the issue of same sex marriage and the ordination of people who are gay,” said the Rev. Tom Berlin of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, a prominent signer of the proposal. “Like your family, you can disagree but not break up over it. The issue of homosexuality seems to have an unusual hold over America and in particular the church in America.”
United Methodists, like much of mainline Protestantism, have become increasingly accepting of equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. White Mainline Protestants account for the most support of gay equality of any Christian group in the United States. But United Methodism, unlike most other denominations, is global and is seeing its more conservative branches in Africa and Asia quickly growing and becoming more influential.
The denomination has about 12.5 million members, about 7.3 million of whom are American. When United Methodists next have their major meeting – which happens every four years – in 2016, American delegates are likely to be in the minority.
At the last General Conference, delegates narrowly defeated a measure that merely acknowledged that United Methodists disagree over homosexuality.
But the legalization of same-sex marriage moving across the United States has rapidly pushed the issue to the fore in the past year. Dozens of liberal pastors are openly violating church doctrine by officiating at same-sex marriages, or vowing to, and conservatives are calling more loudly for accountability and punishment.
Methodists made global news at the end of 2013 by holding a church trial for Frank Schaefer, a Pennsylvania pastor who wed his son to another man, and then defrocking him. Other trials were scheduled, including for the Rev. Thomas Ogletree, a retired dean of Yale Divinity School, who officiated at his son’s same-sex wedding.
A tipping point appeared to come in March, when Bishop Martin McLee, a top New York bishop, canceled the Ogletree trial and said he would not call any future trials because he felt they are too divisive.
That led to about 50 conservative pastors and theologians issuing a statement in May saying it was time to separate.
“Are we not at a point where we can acknowledge, after years of dialogue and debate, the depth of our differences and together, progressives and traditionalists, give each other the freedom to pursue our understanding of God’s will? Can we not learn from the pain that other mainline denominations have experienced … A way where there are no winners and losers, but simply brothers and sisters who part ways amicably, able to wish each other well?” read the statement on the website of Good News, a movement of United Methodist conservatives. “Talk of a ‘middle-way’ or of ‘agreeing to disagree’ is comforting and sounds Christ-like. However, such language only denies the reality we need to admit. Neither side will find ‘agreeing to disagree’ acceptable.”
The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, a leader of Good News, said Friday that what the May statement meant was: Let’s divvy up what we have and stay out of court.
“I think people on both sides are concerned if we go through some separation process that we’ll lose a lot of members and it could cost a lot of money in legal expenses,” he said. “We have no interest in going to court and want to do everything we can to create a positive atmosphere that allows people to follow their conscience.”
All of institutional religion in the West has been in flux, with many people leaving denominations for more free-form communities of faith. United Methodism has shrunk in the United States since 1970 from 11 million to 7.3 million.
Friday’s proposal was signed by about 200 pastors, including some prominent names, among them Adam Hamilton, who leads an 18,000-member church in Kansas and delivered the sermon at President Barack Obama’s 2013 inaugural service, and David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
It’s hard to determine whether the proposal will go anywhere. It had no signers from outside the United States. And within the United States, there are about 28,000 active United Methodist pastors.
Signers said the plan is meant to generate conversation about a compromise before the 2016 General Conference.
“The Church leaders that offer this proposal believe that the current debate is virtually irresolvable if left to the choices that the General Conference has been faced with recently. These leaders believe division would be shortsighted, costly, detrimental to ALL local congregations, and out of step with God’s will,” Friday’s statement read.
“One side believes the ‘practice of homosexuality’ is incompatible with Christian teaching. That is what’s written into the UMC Book of Discipline. The other side believes that scriptures related to homosexuality reflect the values of the time period in which scriptures were written more than the timeless will of God.”
The question is: How big is the middle? Many people on the far right or far left have already left such mainline denominations as United Methodism.
There doesn’t appear to be strong polling about United Methodists’ beliefs.
The Rev. Andy Oliver, a spokesman with Reconciling Ministries Network, which works for equality in the United Methodist Church, said the proposal was “a great step forward” because it could keep the church together – but only a step. Some gay rights advocates, he said, were already citing the creation in 1939 of a racially segregated group within the United Methodist Church as a “compromise” described then as a way to give blacks a role in the church.
Advocates he knows, he said, are mixed. “About half said it was a great step forward, and half are like: ‘I hate this.’ “
“A lot of people in the middle say: ‘We’re in the middle, and the extremes are tearing the church apart.’ What I see is people on the right not getting their way and threatening schism. People on the left who are disappointed are responding again and again with worship. Most people want to create a church where people we disagree with are welcome.”