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United Methodists’ debate over gay issues mirrors the nation’s divided political landscape

It could be months before United Methodists know what the effect will be of the decision this week to double down on a ban against same-sex weddings and the ordination of gay ministers.

But the denomination’s three-day General Conference made one thing clear: Church provides no sanctuary from the political beliefs that divide people outside it.

“Churches are composed of people, and anywhere you have people, you have controversy,” said Mark Tooley, a lifelong United Methodist and president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based Christian alliance that reports on issues affecting the church.

The special session of the United Methodist Church’s top rule-making assembly was called to try to settle a policy debate that has gone on for more than 40 years. More than 850 voting delegates from around the world, along with the non-voting Council of Bishops and about 3,000 observers, gathered in a St. Louis arena to choose “A Way Forward” on matters of human sexuality.

The heart of the matter is one other mainline denominations also have had to decide: whether to allow the ordination of openly LGBTQ clergy, and whether to permit weddings, blessings and other celebrations of same-sex unions in United Methodist churches.

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Mark Tooley The Institute on Religion & Democracy

Since 1972, the denomination’s Book of Discipline has prohibited both. But in recent years, some progressive congregations, including some in North Carolina, have defied the ban with little to no official reprimand, to the frustration of more conservative church members, especially those in Africa.

On Tuesday, at the end of three days of discussion that included a skeletal plan for congregations to withdraw from the denomination, the General Conference voted to uphold and strengthen the ban, adding mandatory consequences for church officials who fail to enforce it.

The meeting was streamed live on the denomination’s website, with more than 35,000 people watching as the vote neared. It was live-tweeted and reported on through social media and news sources. It had moments of prayerful contemplation and of raucous, emotional outbursts.

Fighting, filibustering and a rumor of vote-buying

As it played out on the floor of the conference and in online commentary that surrounded it, the United Methodist debate on sexuality has had elements of American political partisan bickering and infighting. There were delay tactics that looked like filibustering, with one delegate threatening to have his side submit distracting petitions until the Methodists’ rental contract for the arena ran out and that night’s competition of monster trucks rolled in.

There were verbal assaults, with opponents calling each other apostates or saying the other side was sinful or hateful. There were calls for the overthrow of a majority of members of the Council of Bishops. There was intense lobbying by both sides and even a rumor of vote-buying that got referred to the ethics committee for investigation.

Disagreement has been a hallmark of Methodism throughout the denomination’s history, before and after the United Methodist Church was formed through the 1968 convergence of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

The United Methodist churches he pastored before he retired were typical in that way, said William Willimon, a member of the Council of Bishops and a professor of the practice of Christian Ministry at the Duke Divinity School.

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William Willimon United Methodist Church

When it comes to matters of policy and practice — of mission and ministry, Willimon said in a phone interview after the General Conference vote — United Methodists understand that almost no congregation will ever be of one mind.

“The churches I know just carry on, and recognize that we have people with different opinions who don’t like each other, and who disapprove of each other, in the same room,” Willimon said.

“That’s what Jesus does. He brings us together with people we don’t especially care for. And that’s called a church.”

More than 650,000 people in North Carolina identify as United Methodists. The denomination has about 2,000 churches in the state.

Tooley, who said he believes the delegates made the right decision in upholding the bans, said the conference showed the disconnect between the Council of Bishops — which had recommended a more liberal, flexible approach allowing different churches to have different practices — and church membership, which is more conservative, even in the U.S. He said he expects that some people who disagree with the decision will leave the denomination, but that the exodus will be much smaller than if the decision had been to drop the ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy ordination.

But Willimon said he believes the decision of the General Conference will push LGBTQ people out of the United Methodist Church when the denomination needs to be working to bring people in. He said he also believes that a General Conference that reduces divergent interpretations of the Bible and theology into a Yes/No vote is the wrong way to handle any complicated issue.

‘We’ll continue to muddle through’

There is even disagreement over whether the General Conference really settled the matter of human sexuality for the United Methodist Church.

“I think we’ll continue to muddle through,” Willimon said. “I think we’ll continue to be in disagreement. I can’t force you to agree with me by passing a rule. So what can we agree on? Can we agree on Jesus Christ as Lord, and work from there?”

Some elements of the plan approved by the General Conference are under review by the Judicial Council of the church to determine their constitutionality.

A decision is expected in April.

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.
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