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The United Methodist Church (UMC) and homosexuality: An overview

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Topics covered in this essay:

bullet About the United Methodist Church (UMC)
bullet Current status concerning homosexuals
bullet The UMC Book of Discipline
bullet Future church split?
bullet Author's comments
bullet References

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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," constitution, publishing house, and General Conference. Conflicts arose about the role of lay representation, the role and status 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 in the UMC's future, over treatment of homosexuals and bisexuals.

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 sexist. 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, called 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

At the time "matrimony" meant the marriage of one woman and one man. Very few people in the U.S. had actively considered gay marriage or marriage equality.

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Current UMC beliefs and practices concerning the LGBT community:

In 1983, the denomination reported 9.4 million members and over 38,000 churches. By 2005, their membership had declined slightly to 9 million. The decline continues, with "fewer than 7.6 members" in 2010, and 7.3 million in 2015. 4,5 These declines are in spite of the gradual increase in the total U.S. population, and are seen in Christianity generally.

They remain the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States. (The largest is the Southern Baptist Convention, now a fundamentalist faith group).

Having abandoned its racist and sexist policies, the UMC is now attempting to deal with its homophobic beliefs and practices. However, its progress has been very slow.

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:

  • Liberals 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, unchosen, and fixed sexual orientation for a minority of adults that is determined before a person's birth.

  • Conservatives 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 to be restricted only to one man and one woman. Homosexuality is abnormal, unnatural behavior. It is a chosen lifestyle. In the past, most believed that homosexuality can be changed through therapy and prayer. However, with the collapse of Exodus International in mid-2013, -- the main agency promoting reparative therapy to change homosexuals into heterosexuals -- many conservatives are accepting that a homosexual orientation is generally fixed.

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.

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The UMC's Book of Discipline:

The Methodist denomination is primarily U.S. based, where there are about 33,000 congregations . "The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church" regulates the activities, beliefs, and policies of the denomination world-wide. It is updated periodically by the General Conference of Methodist Churches which is held every four years and is attended by delegates from around the world.

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

  • "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."

  • "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).

  • "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)

  • "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).

  • "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?

Marrying same-sex couples, 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:

  • Local option: The decision whether or not to recommend sexually active gays and lesbians for ordination could be delegated to individual congregations or to 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. Such an arrangement would allow sexually active gays and lesbians to 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.

  • Denominational 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:

  • 1844: 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 their merger in 1939.

  • 1860: 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. Thus, if the denomination did split, it may not be able to reunite in the future.

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Author's comments [bias alert]:

The extension of equal rights to lesbians and gays is gradually being accepted by North American religious institutions, starting with the most liberal faith groups and extending towards the most conservative.  Previous U.S. ethical issues (e.g. the abolition of slavery, extension of equal status and rights to women, ordination of women, and abolition of laws preventing interracial marriages) have shown that when a discriminated-against group organizes and seeks equal rights, that they will eventually achieve them. However, the UMC has one complication that is not experienced by most other denominations in the U.S.: they have many congregations outside the U.S. in countries where the culture is more homophobic.

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

  • Acknowledging that the church membership is divided over the homosexual issue.

  • Adopting a local option plan which would allow individual congregations or ministers to choose whether to recommend gay and lesbian candidates for ordination and whether to marry same-sex committed couples.

  • Allowing congregations or ministers to choose whether to marry same-sex couples, or bless such couples who had been previously married in a civil ceremony.

However, there are an indications that such compromise will not be easily accomplished. 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 -- human slavery.  Another church split may occur in the near future over sexual orientation.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. US News article, "Methodist church weighs homosexual marriage" at:
  2. "Historical firsts for women clergy, Part 2," The General Commission on Archives and History for The United Methodist Church, at:
  3. "Timeline: History of the UM Stance on Homosexuality" at:
  4. "2011 numbers show U.S. members still sliding," United Methodist Church, 2011, at:
  5. "Data Services," United Methodist Church, 2015, at:
  6. Rev. Drew Phoenix and the United Methodist Church," Transfaith, 20
  7. Stephanie Simon, "Transgender pastor's new test of faith," Los Angeles Times, 2007-SEP-09, at:
  8. Daniel Burke, "Transgender pastor prompts uneasy questions for Methodists," USA Today, 2007-OCT-18, at:

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Copyright © 1997 to 2019 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2018-DEC-28
Author: B.A. Robinson
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