Pro-LGBTQ votes signal gradual change for Methodists
The United Methodist Church has been working to become more progressive and LGBTQ-affirming at US regional meetings this month, which included the election of its second openly gay bishop. Tories say the developments will only hasten their exit from one of the largest Protestant denominations in the country.
Each of the UMC’s five U.S. jurisdictions — meeting separately in early November — approved similarly worded measures striving for a church future where “LGBTQIA+ people are protected, affirmed, and empowered.”
They also passed non-binding measures asking anyone to step back from leadership roles if they plan to leave the denomination soon – a category that includes almost entirely conservatives who are headed for the exits.
The denomination still officially prohibits same-sex marriage and the ordination of any “self-proclaimed practicing homosexual,” and only a legislature called the General Conference can change that.
But this month’s votes show a growing momentum — at least in the American half of the global church — to challenge those policies and seek to overturn them at the next legislative rally in 2024.
Proponents and opponents of the measures have drawn on the same metaphor to say their church is becoming more or less a “big tent,” as United Methodists have long been portrayed as a theologically diverse and dominant denomination.
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“It demonstrates that the big tent has collapsed,” said Reverend Jay Therrell, president of the conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association, which helps churches that want to leave the denomination.
“For years bishops have told traditionalists there is room for everyone in The United Methodist Church,” he said. “Not a single traditionalist bishop has been elected. Plus, we now have the most progressive or liberal council of bishops in the history of Methodism, period.
But Jan Lawrence, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which works to include Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities, applauded the regional jurisdictions. She cited their LGBTQ-affirming votes and their expansion of racial, ethnic and gender diversity of bishops.
Jurisdictions elected the church’s first Native American and Filipino American bishops, with other historic votes in specific regions, according to United Methodist News Service.
“It’s a big tent church,” Lawrence said. “One of the concerns expressed by some people is that we don’t have leadership in the church that reflects the diversity of the church. This episcopal election does not solve that, but it is a step in the right direction.
Bishop Cedrick Bridgeforth, elected at the Western Jurisdiction meeting, agreed. He is the first openly gay African-American man to be elected bishop. The vote comes six years after the western jurisdiction elected the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop, Karen Oliveto of Mountain Sky Episcopal Area.
Resolutions affirming LGBTQ underscore “the denomination’s alignment more with the mainstream of our country,” Bridgeforth said. “It can also help us start to focus our conversations where we have a common goal, rather than focusing on divisions.”
Bridgeforth will lead churches in the Greater Northwest region, which includes churches in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and small parts of Montana and Canada. He said he had always worked across ideological lines in his administrative duties and would continue to do so.
“I used our differences as an opportunity for us to come together,” he said. “It creates more space for a different kind of conversation than, ‘This is different, this is wrong, we can’t be together.'” If some churches under his jurisdiction choose to leave The United Methodist Church, Bridgeforth said he would help them make that transition.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to be where they don’t want to be,” he said.
Progressive groups have said the church should be open to appointing bishops and other clergy, regardless of sexual orientation, who show they have the gifts for ministry and a commitment to serving the ‘church.
Conservatives, however, say the church must play by its own rules.
“I am sure Bishop Bridgeforth is a person of sacred worth, but he does not qualify for the office of elder, let alone bishop, and should not have been elected,” Therrell said. .
At least 300 American congregations left the denomination this year, according to United Methodist News Service. Hundreds more are set to leave, and Therrell predicted that number would drop to thousands by the end of 2023. Overseas conferences in Bulgaria and Slovakia have terminated their affiliation with the denomination, and churches in Africa are considering it, he said. .
Many are heading to the new conservative denomination, the World Methodist Church.
UMC is a worldwide denomination. American membership has fallen to about 6.5 million from a peak of 11 million in the 1960s. Overseas membership has soared to match or surpass that of the United States, fueled primarily by the growth and mergers in Africa. Overseas delegates have historically allied with American conservatives in defending church positions on sexuality.
Support for a compromise measure that would have amicably split the denomination, negotiated in 2020, plummeted after that year’s Legislative General Conference was postponed three times due to the pandemic. The next General Conference is now scheduled to begin in April 2024 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
A 2019 General Conference vote was the latest of several over the past few decades that have reinforced the Church’s ban on same-sex clergy and marriage. But that vote also prompted many local conferences to elect more liberal and centrist delegates, whose influence was felt in regional votes this month.
Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
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