In order to put that plan into place, however, the bishops needed the support from a body of Methodist delegates from around the country and the world, so they convened this special General Conference. Denominational leaders worked hard to win support: “There’s been a full-court press to adopt the One Church Plan,” said Tom Lambrecht, an elder at a United Methodist church in Wisconsin who served on the Commission on the Way Forward, a body convened to advise the UMC bishops on what to do, in an interview on Tuesday.
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The bishops clearly did not have the support for which they had hoped. During a vote early in the conference, delegates did not put the One Church Plan at the top of their collective agenda. On Tuesday, they definitively voted against any further consideration of the plan. “The fact that that’s been rejected shows that our leadership has lost its ability to influence and lead our Church in a way that people are willing to follow,” Lambrecht said.
Although the United Methodist Church is often described as a liberal, mainline Protestant denomination, in reality, the body is much more split, even in the United States. In a poll of its American members, the denomination found that 44 percent of respondents described their religious beliefs as traditional or conservative, 28 percent said they are moderate or centrist, and 20 percent identified as progressive or liberal. While the survey didn’t ask directly about LGBTQ issues, this is one of the clear theological dividing lines in the denomination. “There are thousands of us in churches … fiercely committed to a traditional definition of marriage: one man and one woman,” said Aislinn Deviney, a delegate from Rio, Texas. “I am a young, evangelical delegate. We young evangelicals want you to know that we are here. And we are striving to leave a legacy of scriptural holiness for generations to come.”
Worldwide, those numbers would likely shift even more toward a so-called traditional perspective. The United States accounts for roughly 60 percent of the UMC. At the General Conference in St. Louis, pastors from global communities were resolutely opposed to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy. “The Church in Africa is growing in leaps and bounds because we are committed to biblical Christianity,” said Jerry Kulah, a reverend from Liberia. “The United Methodist Church is not a United States Church.”
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While LGBTQ issues drove the debate at the UMC’s gathering, delegates seemed to disagree about something deeper: what Jesus actually teaches about sexuality and how LGBTQ people should be treated in the Church. Conservative delegates argued that their position is a matter of biblical fidelity. “Traditional believers regard scripture as being the ultimate authority,” Boyette said. “When it comes to something like our teachings on human sexuality and what the Bible spells out as the boundaries there, those are essentials.” Other delegates, however, argued that conservatives focus on this issue to the exclusion of others, such as divorce, and that conservative Methodists are perfectly willing to interpret the Bible’s teachings on other issues, such as women in ministry. “I’ve listened to a lot of people talk about the Bible as though the rest of us don’t love the Bible, read the Bible, interpret the Bible, understand the Bible,” said Adam Hamilton, the pastor of a prominent Methodist congregation in Kansas who supports LGBTQ inclusion in the UMC.