After three days — capping five decades — of emotional debate, United Methodists voted Tuesday to continue to ban same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy, opening the door for what is expected to be an exodus of members from the denomination in North Carolina and across the U.S.
Delegates to the denomination’s special session of the General Conference voted to adopt what is known as the Traditional Plan, which upholds the language of the Book of Discipline, banning same-sex marriages and the ordination of openly gay clergy. The vote was 438 to 384. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the vote as 438 to 334.)
Rev. Jason Butler, pastor of the Open Table United Methodist Church in Raleigh, watched a live stream of the proceedings as they happened in St. Louis. He and many others anticipated the vote in favor of the Traditional Plan, because it had the support of church delegates from outside the U.S., especially those in conservative-leaning African countries.
“It’s a sad day for the United Methodist Church,” Butler said by phone after the vote. “Today is probably the end of the United Methodist Church as we have known it.”
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The denomination claims more than 12.6 million members worldwide, and more than 650,000 in North Carolina.
Butler is not gay but said he will continue to support his many congregants who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual or queer.
“We reject this result, are saddened by it and grieve with our LGBTQ friends who have been damaged so much today,” he said. “We stand in solidarity with them. We don’t believe we can vote on somebody’s humanity and their worthiness to serve and be and lead in the church.”
It’s not clear what will happen next, but many United Methodists believe that members or entire churches will leave the denomination. How exactly that will happen, including how property would be disposed of, is not yet clear.
Allen Morris of Fayetteville, a longtime Methodist and editor of the Christian Methodist Newsletter, attended the General Conference. Reached by phone at the arena just after the vote, Morris said he had mixed feelings about the decision. In the background, supporters could be heard chanting, “No, no, no.”
“It’s very bittersweet,” said Morris, who has been working to revive the United Methodist Church in the United States, which he said has been losing members since 1968 at roughly the rate of the equivalent of a congregation per day.
Morris said he expects Tuesday’s vote to accelerate members’ flight from the church.
“But if you look at what the Bible has to say about (homosexual) practice and what the United Methodist Church has to say, it calls it sin,” he said. He added that sinful behavior between heterosexuals is a much more prevalent problem in the church.
“It’s the decision that is the right one,” he said. “But it was very close and it’s a very tough vote. It’s been a really long battle and there are some really hard feelings.”
Morris said he expects some people will leave the church immediately, and others will do so in the coming weeks or months.
“It’s going to take a little time for this to settle down and for people and churches to decide what they’re going to do,” he said.