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Topics covered in this essay:

bulletAbout the United Methodist Church (UMC)
bulletCurrent status concerning homosexuals
bulletThe UMC Book of Discipline
bulletFuture church split?
bulletAuthor's comments

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About the United Methodist Church

The Methodist movement traces its history in the U.S. back to the first conference of Methodist preachers in Philadelphia, PA, in 1760. By 1801, The Methodist Episcopal Church in America was organized, with its first "Discipline," publishing house, General Conference and constitution. Conflicts arose about the role of lay representation, the role of women and human slavery. The Methodist movement split in 1844 after long, heated discussions over slavery and the power of bishops. History may repeat itself over the homosexual issue in the near future.

The Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church merged in 1939 to become the Methodist Church. It was a racist group, racially segregated into five white jurisdictions and a Central Jurisdiction for the black Methodist conferences.

During the period from 1939 to 1968, five Methodist churches merged to form the United Methodist Church (UMC). They were the Evangelical Association; Methodist Episcopal Church; Methodist Episcopal Church, South; Methodist Protestant Church, and the United Brethren in Christ. The church has been a strong supporter of the ecumenical movement. Although predecessor denominations to the UMC did ordain women, it was not until 1956 the UMC ceased being a sexist denomination. In that year, Maud K. Jensen became the first woman to receive full clergy rights and conference membership in the UMC. 2

In 1964, the Methodist General Conference added a statement about "Sex in Christian Life" to the denomination's Social Creed (after 1972 the Social Principles). It read in part:

"We believe that sexual intercourse within holy matrimony with fidelity and love is a sacred experience and constitutes a needed expression of affection. We also believe that sexual intercourse outside the bonds of matrimony is contrary to the will God..." 3

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Current status concerning homosexuals:

In 1983, they reported 9.4 million members and over 38,000 churches. Membership has remained relatively stable over the past 15 years; they are now about 9 million strong. They are the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States. (The largest is the Southern Baptist Convention, a fundamentalist faith group).

Having abandoned its racist and sexist policies, the UMC is now attempting to deal with its homophobic beliefs and practices.

The UMC members' beliefs about homosexuality are split along the same liberal/conservative lines as are present in other denominations. Most members fall into one of two groups:

bulletLiberals within the UMC generally look upon gay/lesbian ordination and same-sex marriage as civil rights issues -- fundamental human rights issues that should be available to persons of all sexual orientations. They also typically believe that a homosexuality is a normal, natural sexual orientation for a minority of people. It is not changeable nor is it chosen.
bulletConservatives feel that homosexual behavior is a sin, hated by God and condemned throughout the Bible. Allowing a homosexual to be ordained would be a massive attack on historical church standards. Marriage is for one man and one woman only. Homosexuality is abnormal, unnatural behavior. It is chosen lifestyle and can be healed through therapy and prayer.

Progress towards racial, gender and sexual orientation inclusiveness in the Methodist Church has historically played major role in influencing change in other denominations. One reason for this is their membership size; another is that they are often referred to as the most "mainline" of Christian denominations. Where they go, other denominations often follow.

This essay continues below.

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The UMC Book of Discipline:

The Methodist denomination is primarily American; there are about 37,000 congregations in the US and about 5,200 elsewhere in the world. "The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church" regulates the activities of the denomination world-wide. It is updated periodically by the General Conference of Methodist Churches which is attended by delegates from around the world.

The Book currently contains a number of clauses relating to homosexuality:

bullet"Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals* are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."

*Footnote –- "'Self-avowed practicing homosexual' is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual."
(Book of Discipline, Par. 304.3)
bullet"Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God's grace is available to all. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons." (From "The Nurturing Community," a section of the church's Social Principles, Par. 65G).
bullet"The council on [Finance and Administration] shall be responsible for ensuring that no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. The council shall have the right to stop such expenditures.* This restriction shall not limit the church's ministry in response to the HIV epidemic."

"*Reference is made to a Judicial Council Decision (491) that authorized the right of an annual conference to use funds to study homophobia and another (592) that gave the General Conference the right to create and fund a study of homosexuality." (Book of Discipline, Par. 806.12)
bullet"We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman...Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." (From Social Principles, Par. 65C).
bullet"Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation -– Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons. We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting their rightful claims where they have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law. Moreover, we support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against gays and lesbians. We also commit ourselves to social witness against the coercion and marginalization of former homosexuals." (Social Principles, Par. 66H)

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Future church split?

Blessing gay and lesbian unions, and accepting non-celibate homosexuals as pastors, are matters that are not open to simple compromise. There only appear to be two methods of resolving the homosexual ordination question:

bulletLocal option: The decision whether or not to recommend sexually active gays and lesbians for ordination could be delegated to individual congregations or regional conferences. This would not be an optimum decision for religious liberals within the denomination; they feel that all members of any gender or sexual orientation should be eligible for consideration for the ministry throughout the denomination. It would also be not easily acceptable to conservatives within the denomination; gays and lesbians could then simply travel to a congregation or region that would accept them. Both sides look upon these as moral questions, backed by their basic beliefs about homosexual orientation, and their interpretation of key Biblical passages.
bulletDenominational split: Another obvious alternative is for the denomination to split into two organizations: one in favor of equal rights for persons of all sexual orientations; the other opposed. The United Methodist Reporter newspaper chain posed the question in early 1999: "Can we agree to disagree and still live in the same ecclesiastical 'house,' but in different 'rooms'? Or do we need to be planning wisely for the division of the house, preparing to become two denominations that share a common history?''

There have been past splits in the Methodist movement over human rights. In the mid-19th century the church was in conflict over slavery. As described in our essay on Christianity and Slavery:

bullet1844: The General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church split into two conferences because of tensions over slavery and the power of bishops in the denomination. The two General Conferences, the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and Methodist Episcopal church, South remained separate until a merger in 1939.
bullet1860: Ministers and laity of the Methodist Episcopal Church's Genesee Conference in western New York state were expelled from the church for insubordination. They left to form the Free Methodist Church of North America. They split over a variety of factors, including theological disagreements, the perceived worldliness of the original church, and slavery. Their leader "...Roberts and most of his followers were radical abolitionists in the years immediately prior to the Civil War, at a time when many within the Methodist Episcopal church were hesitant in their condemnation of the practice of slavery." 1

The Methodist's historical record is mixed on whether any split over human rights could be healed in the future, when homosexuality is expected to be more fully accepted as a normal and natural sexual orientation. The denomination may, or may not be able to reunite in the future.

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Author's comments

The extension of equal rights to lesbians and gays is gradually traveling throughout North American religious institutions, starting with the most liberal denominations and extending towards the most conservative.  Previous ethical issues (e.g. the abolition of slavery, extension of equal rights to women, ordination of women, and abolition of laws preventing mixed-race marriages) have shown that when a discriminated-against group organizes and demands equal rights, that they will eventually achieve them.

I had hoped that the church would choose a compromise position, perhaps:

bulletAcknowledging that the church membership is divided over the homosexual issue.
bulletAdopting a local option plan which would allow individual congregations to choose whether to recommend gay and lesbian candidates for ordination. A bishop, as advised by a Board of Ordained Ministry, would then be given the authority to ordain gay and lesbian candidates.
bulletAuthorizing ministers to perform civil union ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples in those states like Vermont that recognize civil unions.

However, there are an indications that such compromise is impossible. The resolution at the year 2000 conference which acknowledged differences in the beliefs about homosexuality within the denomination was soundly rejected. A Methodist split happened over 150 years ago -- largely fueled by angry debate over another ethical, civil rights issue -- slavery.  Another church split appears inevitable. It may well be the least damaging route for the future.

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  1. US News article, "Methodist church weighs homosexual marriage" at: http://www.cnn.com/
  2. "Historical firsts for women clergy, Part 2," The General Commission on Archives and History for The United Methodist Church, at: http://www.gcah.org/
  3. "Timeline: History of the UM Stance on Homosexuality" at: http://www.whystayum.org/

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Copyright 1997 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2005-NOV-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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