America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church, is set to split, as the church’s top policy-making body voted Tuesday to maintain prohibitions on homosexuality and to expel gay pastors.
Today’s vote at the UMC’s General Conference in St. Louis—delayed by filibusters, amendments, and other tactics by progressives—comes after two compromise options were rejected by narrow margins.
One, the “One Church Plan,” would have let individual churches and regional bodies decide whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members. That plan was backed by a majority of the church’s Council of Bishops, but was rejected by a vote of 53% to 46%.
Another, the “Simple Plan,” would have simply removed all mentions of homosexuality from Methodist doctrine, recorded in its official ‘Book of Discipline.’ It, too, was rejected.
Only the anti-LGBTQ “Traditional Plan” won a majority of delegates, prevailing by a vote of 56% to 44%.
That plan maintains the Book of Discipline’s statement that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained as ministers or be married in the church.
Moreover, the plan actually increases the enforcement of this provision. At present, there are numerous LGBTQ Methodist pastors – one, Briand Adkins, spoke at the Conference and stated plainly “I am a gay pastor” – and the denomination has not taken affirmative action to dismiss them.
And in 2016, the Western United States district of the UMC elected an openly lesbian bishop, Karen Oliveto. At the time, conservatives warned that the decision would lead to a schism in the denomination, which now appears to be on the brink of taking place.
Under the Traditional Plan, regional bodies would be compelled to expel these pastors, including Bishop Oliveto. “No matter what happens, I’m going to keep on following Jesus,” she tweeted early today.
From one perspective, the vote is puzzling. Why is UMC moving backward on LGBT inclusion when religious Americans are moving forward?
But the answer is not hard to understand. UMC is a global denomination with 12.7 million members: 43% of participants at the denomination’s General Conference coming from overseas, mostly Africa. And while Americans are moving left, African church leaders are not.
“We Africans are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to the church's sexual ethics," said Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean of Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia, during the conference. “We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal church elite in the U.S.”
Of course, the opposition of African pastors on the grounds that equality for LGBTQ people is a Western invention is ironic, given that it has been well documented that African anti-LGBT leaders have long been bankrolled by American conservatives.
In fact, same-sex relationships have long been part of indigenous African cultures. The Methodist denomination itself was founded by John Wesley in 18th century England.
But African pastors’ conservatism is also partly the result of their ‘competition’ with conservative Islam for followers. Some imams touts Islam as more pious than Christianity in part because of its hard line on homosexuality.
At the Conference, LGBTQ participants expressed horror at the decision.
J.J. Warren, a gay New York state college student who wants to become a Methodist pastor, gave an impassioned speech at the Conference describing his own evangelizing to people who “didn’t know God could love them because their churches said God didn’t.”
Dorothee Benz, an activist from New York City, spoke on the floor of the Conference about the connection between anti-LGBTQ religious doctrine and anti-LGBTQ violence.
Overall, the General Conference was riven by furious debate and the shedding of tears. Numerous attendees and allies took to social media, with comments like “This is 2019 and a major Christian denomination is undecided of my youth” and “If you think a vote will keep me out of this church, you are about to be seriously disappointed.” Reverend Rob Lee tweeted simply “I’m broken.”
On a lighter note, one Seattle pastor tweeted that “The Traditional Plan turned #UMGCC into Fyre Festival.”
Fyre, however, flamed out in a single weekend. But the crisis is just beginning for the Methodist Church. Already, progressives and conservatives alike are discussing how LGBT-affirming churches (and perhaps regions) can make a “graceful exit” from the denomination. The question is not whether, but how.
At stake are not only the affiliations of millions of American Methodists, but also their churches, those institutions’ financial assets, and the structure of the denomination itself. As it exits its global conference, the second largest Protestant denomination is in a shambles.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated following the final vote.
This article originally included a quote attributed to Pastor Anthony Tang. The person who tweeted the quote has retracted it.