Methodists from around the world are in Portland this week for their General Conference, a big meeting about church teachings and laws that happens every four years. This year, at least, the delegates aren’t focused on bureaucratic minutiae. They are considering whether gay and lesbian pastors should be ordained, and whether same-sex couples should be able to be married in the church. Depending on what they eventually choose, they may effectively decide whether the denomination should schism.
The Methodists are not the first to face this existential challenge. LGBT issues have caused heartache among Catholics and Muslims and Mennonites; they’ve prompted Jews to reflect on their theology and Southern Baptists to dig in on theirs. But unlike Catholics, who are bound to follow the teachings of the hierarchy, or Southern Baptists, who are categorically opposed to homosexuality, Methodists have to find coherence within a global, democratic church that embraces a vast range of positions. The denomination’s Book of Discipline, its set of guidelines and teachings, says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and many churches agree with that position. Pastors are not supposed to be gay, and clergy who perform gay weddings can be tried by the Church for their actions.* Despite these possible consequences, a number of pastors have started rebelling against this teaching in recent years, officiating same-sex marriage ceremonies or coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.