- The United Methodist Church voted to 53% to 46% to tighten its rules on same-sex marriage and gay clergy members at its national meeting on Tuesday.
- The rules reaffirm the church’s position that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and recommit the church to enforcing disciplinary actions against clergy members who violate the rule.
- The vote dashes the hopes of pro-LGBTQ church members who have been fighting for recognition for years and threatens to split up the church. Numerous bishops have said they would leave the church, and the new policy encourages those that don’t affirm it to leave.
- The national Methodist conference in St. Louis was composed of delegates from around the world. Some 43% were from other countries, many of which were African nations that fiercely oppose same-sex marriage.
- After the vote, rumours of “vote buying” circulated and were eventually referred to the church’s ethics committee.
The United Methodist Church, a sect of Christianity that has 12 million followers worldwide and 7 million in the US, including Hillary Clinton and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has voted to tighten restrictions on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy members, distancing the Methodist Church from more progressive Protestant sects that have moved their own policies closer to public opinion and the law.
At the church’s international meeting in St. Louis, members overwhelmingly voted to pursue the “Traditional Plan,” which recommits the religious organisation to its 1972 policy assertion that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Per the original policy, gays and lesbians would not be allowed to marry under the church or join the clergy. But under the new “Traditional Plan,” enforcement would be more harsh and consistent. Previously, gay clergy members or those who performed same-sex marriages faced inconsistent enforcement, and the church’s judicial council ruled against mandatory penalties under the rules, according to The Associated Press.
The new “Traditional Plan” would mandate a one-year unpaid suspension for a clergy member who officiates a same-sex wedding. A second offence would result in expulsion, according to The New York Times.
The opposing plan that was voted down, called the “One Church Plan,” would have removed the statement condemning homosexuality from the Church’s primary-rules document and allowed regional bodies to determine their own policies on LGBTQ clergy members and same-sex marriages.
Following the votes, numerous delegates raised accusations of “vote buying.”
Florida delegate Carlene Fogle-Miller called for an investigation into the matter. Her proposal passed and will move onto the church’s ethics committee. In a tweet, she wrote, “If there is nothing to hide, there is no need to fear an ethics investigation. Period.”
The rule-change could split up the church
According to the new policy, if congregations don’t “certify adherence,” they will be “urged” to leave the church. A separate vote allowed members to leave the sect along with their congregation’s associated property.
Numerous congregations have reportedly indicated that the rule change would be cause for leaving anyway.
Minister Diane McGehee of Texas’ Bering United Methodist Church told the Houston Chronicle, “Bering is real clear on where it stands. If it isn’t allowed to stand that way in the UMC, it will find a place where it can.” The church reportedly is protesting the rules by performing no marriage ceremonies until it can also perform same-sex ceremonies.
Kenneth Carter, the president of the church’s council of bishops, is aware of other congregations that are considering leaving the church, telling The New York Times, “Unfortunately, the losers will be the most vulnerable, who won’t have the protection of a united church.”
The divide extends along international lines
It has been reported that the primary lines of division within the church are along international borders. According to The Associated Press, 43% of delegates in St. Louis are from other countries, with most of them being from Africa. The delegation “overwhelmingly” supports the “Traditional Plan.”
Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia spoke in favour of the “Traditional Plan,” saying it would bring Methodist practice in line with the Scripture. “You cannot be performing Christianity differently in America and Africa and suggest that we are one church,” he said.
African religious leaders have notably been courted and lobbied by US conservatives. According to a 2009 report from the progressive think tank Political Research Associates, “US conservatives have successfully recruited a significant number of prominent African religious leaders to a campaign seeking to restrict the human rights of LGBT people … As a direct result of this campaign, homophobia is on the rise in Africa – from increased incidents of violence to anti-gay legislation that carries the death penalty.”
The report identified numerous groups that have specifically targeted Africa for spreading their ideology. One such group, MassResistance, has been categorized as an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Broadly reported that the group has been funding the creation of satellite groups in Nigeria since 2016.
Other delegations from the Philippines and Russia, a country that passed an “anti-gay propaganda law” in 2013, were also reportedly outspoken against gay marriage at the meeting.
LGBTQ issues have long been contested in the Methodist Church
The United Methodist Church has debated gay clergy members and same-sex marriage for years, even as support for it among its congregation has grown over the years.
In 2016, the church created a commission to study the issue, and its vote was put off until 2019. The move was heralded has a historic step toward gay rights in the church.
In 2008, Methodists voted to leave the original policy toward LGBTQ clergy members in place.
In 2005, Irene Elizabeth Stroud was defrocked for being a lesbian, an action that has been repeated since 1987. After the 2005 decision, however, the church frequently refrained from defrocking LGBTQ clergy members. Given the new rules, it appears that the church may begin moving toward its earlier rules.
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