The United Methodist Church is mulling three policy models for how the denomination could treat LGBTQ members and clergy, and they range from keeping exclusive language in the Book of Discipline to branching the church according to beliefs about religion and sexuality.
In North Carolina and around the world, United Methodist bishops have been holding meetings in recent weeks with church leaders and laity to talk about “A Way Forward.” That’s the name Methodists have given to the process of trying to reconcile different views about human sexuality, including whether the church should conduct same-sex marriages and whether it will ordain as clergy members who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning.
Denominational leaders hope that the way forward – which may include one of the models now on the table, or some other proposal not yet conceived – will avoid congregations leaving the denomination entirely. Instead, they hope the church will embrace the Methodist tradition that people can love Jesus, love their neighbors and sometimes disagree.
“Grace and mercy are what change hearts,” Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church, which covers Eastern North Carolina, told more than 120 people who came to St. Luke United Methodist Church in Sanford Sunday to hear the proposals. “Grace and mercy are what draw people to God.”
Methodists in the Western North Carolina Conference are having the same conversations, including one scheduled for 3 p.m. March 11 at First United Methodist Church in Hendersonville.
United Methodists first addressed human sexuality doctrinally in 1972, when the General Conference, the worldwide governing board, wrote into the Book of Discipline that “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.”
United Methodists define marriage as a covenant “between a man and a woman,” and the denomination bans pastors from officiating and churches from hosting ceremonies that celebrate same-sex marriages, despite the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized them.
In recent years, several United Methodist clergy, including one in Charlotte in 2016, have defied the ban.
Like other denominations, United Methodists are divided over which is the sin: being gay or discriminating against people who are.
In 2016, the General Conference authorized its Council of Bishops to form a Commission on a Way Forward. The Commission, with 32 members from around the world – including three who are openly gay – crafted the proposals congregations are hearing about now.
The proposals are intentionally broad, with no detail on how exactly they would be put in place. They are:
▪ to leave the language in the Book of Discipline as it is and enforce conformity across the denomination. This option would require the addition of specific rules as well as consequences for those who defy them.
▪ to remove the language from the Book of Discipline and allow ministers to work “contextually.” Ward noted that Methodist churches operate contextually now, with ministries and traditions that vary from church to church and region to region, all under the United Methodist umbrella. Under this option, pastors who want to conduct same-sex marriages could do so, for example, but those who are opposed would not be required to participate.
▪ to create different branches of the church, in which congregations might align more along philosophical lines than geographical ones.
Each model, presenters said, has a scriptural basis, and clergy and laity are being asked to consider how each model can serve the United Methodist mission to “make disciples of Christ to transform the world.”
The Rev. Maidstone Mulenga, spokesman for the Council of Bishops, based in Washington, said the commission is to make a final recommendation in May to the Council of Bishops, which may or may not take its advice. The denomination is planning a special meeting of General Conference in 2019 to try to make decisions on the issue.