Every four years, a General Conference of Methodist churches from around the world is
For decades, the conferences have experienced three major trends that are pulling the United Methodist Church in opposite directions:
U.S. public opinion surveys show that, during the early 21st century, increasing numbers of older teens and young adults are leaving Christian churches permanently. A major reason is the churches' policies towards science in general and human sexuality topics in particular. This group is the first generation in which most members know one or more lesbians or gays as a personal friend or close relative. Having such contact tends to have a major positive impact on a person's acceptance of same-gender sexual attraction and behavior. Many younger members view the church's current stance as much too conservative and exclusionary, and in opposition to the findings of human sexuality researchers.
Opposition to equality for the LGBT community is high among older adults. This is because most people form their moral beliefs at a young age and retain them unchanged for the rest of their life. Unfortunately, much of the financial support for the denomination comes from these adults, so that the denomination cannot change its position on homosexuality rapidly without a severe financial penalty.
Adults throughout North American are increasingly adopting an accepting attitude towards LGBTs. For example, support for gay marriage has been increasing about 1 to 2 percentage points a year in the U.S., and reached 60% by the mid 2010's.
The UMC in African and Asian countries is growing rapidly. The cultures in these countries generally exhibit strongly homophobic beliefs against sexual minorities. There has been little change in their position during this century.
Mentions of homosexuality in the UMC's Book of Discipline, as of 2016:
This book contains the law and doctrine of the denomination. Modifications of their Book of Discipline are often considered during General Conferences.
Currently, Section 304.3 of the Book states that:
"The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
Note that the Book of Discipline takes care to differentiate between a person's:
Sexual orientation. This refers to the feelings of sexual attraction by those with a
heterosexual orientation only to persons of the opposite sex;
homosexual orientation only to persons of the same sex;
bisexual orientation to persons of both sexes, although generally not to the same degree; or
asexual orientation to neither males nor females.
None of the above are condemned by the denomination,
Sexual behavior with persons of the same gender, which is condemned.
During the 2016 General ConferenceThe Book of Discipline contained several statements that touch on homosexual orientation and same-gender sexual behavior. They were unchanged by the Conference:
Section 4; Article IV discusses inclusiveness:
"The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In The United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition. ..." 1
Section 214 clarifies the matter of inclusiveness:
"... All people may attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments and become members in any local church in the connection ..."
Section 304.3 discusses the necessary qualifications for ordination:
"... While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. ..."
1. "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. ..."
Section 806.9 discusses the responsibilities of the General Council on Finance and Administration:
"... 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 or violate the expressed commitment of The United Methodist Church "'not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends'..." 1
There is a degree of ambiguity in the first statement on inclusiveness. It seems to imply that "all persons" are welcomed; it lists specific groups; and yet does not specifically include persons of minority sexual orientations or gender identity.
Section 214 clarifies the ambiguity by welcoming all persons.
Section 304.3 appears similar to the U.S. Military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which was abandoned during 2011-SEP. As long as a person with a homosexual orientation remains celibate they are able to become and remain a member of the clergy. If a person engages in same-gender sexual behavior but does not openly discuss it, they appear to be eligible to be considered for the ministry and to remain in the ministry.
Activity at the UMC 2016 General Conference:
The General Conference was held in the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, OR from 2016-MAY-10 to 20.
Between and during conferences, the struggle over same-gender sexual behavior has seriously divided opinion within the UMC. There were frequent informal discussions about splitting the denomination into two faith groups, one holding liberal and the other holding conservative beliefs on homosexuality. This would be similar to splits during the 19th century, many denominations split over whether to support or oppose human slavery. Similarly, some denominations split during the 20th century over allowing the ordination of women.
Liberal denominations like the United Church of Christ and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America have largely accepted liberal interpretations of the six biblical "clobber passages" that are often said to deal with same-gender sexual behavior and gay marriage. These groups are supportive of LGBT equality. Fundamentalist and other evangelical denominations have retained their negative policies and beliefs towards the LGBT community, based largely on conservative interpretations of the same passages. Meanwhile, serious conflicts have been present over the LGBT community in recent decades within many mainline denominations like the UMC.
During the previous General Conference in 2012, the UMC attempted to pass a resolution that simply recognized the reality within the church: that the membership was seriously divided on the topic of same-gender sexual behavior by persons with a homosexual or bisexual orientation. That attempt failed. Apparently neither "side" recognized that the other "side" had a valid argument.
Tensions over the acceptance of same-gender sexual behavior and gay marriage by the denomination appeared to have strengthened since 2012. Most members of the UMC are located in the West where support for the LGBT community is high, and increasing, but total membership numbers are dropping. Membership in Asia and Africa is currently smaller, but is growing rapidly. Opposition to the LGBT community is much higher there, and stable.
More than 100 gay clergy and seminary students came out "of the closet" and went public with their sexual orientation just before the start of the 2016 General Conference. 2