Conservative Christians Just Retook the United Methodist Church

The mainline denomination voted on Tuesday to toughen its teachings against homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and LGBTQ clergy. It must now decide whether it will stay together.

Delegates at the United Methodist Church General Conference react to the defeat of a proposal that would have allowed pastors to perform same-sex weddings and LGBTQ people to serve in ministry in some areas. (Sid Hastings / AP)

The United Methodist Church has fractured over the role of LGBTQ people in the denomination. At a special conference in St. Louis this week, convened specifically to address divisions over LGBTQ issues, members voted to toughen prohibitions on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy. This was a surprise: The denomination’s bishops, its top clergy, pushed hard for a resolution that would have allowed local congregations, conferences, and clergy to make their own choices about conducting same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ pastors. This proposal, called the “One Church Plan,” was designed to keep the denomination together. Methodist delegates rejected its recommendations, instead choosing the so-called Traditional Plan, which affirmed the denomination’s teachings against homosexuality.

This is a consequential vote for the future of the United Methodist Church: Many progressive churches will now almost certainly consider leaving the denomination. It’s also a reminder that many Christian denominations, including mainline groups such as the UMC, are still deeply divided over questions of sexuality and gender identity. While the UMC in the United States is roughly evenly divided between those who identify as traditionalists and those who identify as moderates and liberals, it is also a global organization. Many of the growing communities in the Philippines or countries in Africa are committed to theological teachings against same-sex relationships and marriages.

Self-described traditionalists in the United Methodist Church got the outcome they’ve been fighting for. Still, “I think there’s a lot of grief on all sides,” said Keith Boyette, the head of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and a main proponent of the Traditional Plan, in an interview on Tuesday. Methodists are in mourning for a United Methodist Church that might be on the brink of a mass exodus.

[Read: The divided Methodist church]

For years, LGBTQ Methodists, clergy, and their supporters have argued that people of all sexual orientations and gender identities should be fully included in the denomination as leaders, and that their families should be recognized. “As someone who has grown up in our Church, as someone who is gay and goes to one of the least religious colleges in the U.S., my evangelism on campus has grown,” said J. J. Warren, a senior at Sarah Lawrence College who hopes to become a Methodist pastor, during the conference on Tuesday. “We have brought people to Jesus … They did not know God could love them, because their churches said God didn’t … If we could be a Church that brings Jesus to people who are told can’t be loved, that’s what I want our Church to be.”

Others in the denomination, however, see LGBTQ issues as a proxy for bigger divisions over biblical teachings. “This is not a political or social kind of difference. It is primarily, for us, a theological difference, and the truth that the Church has been raised up to share,” Boyette said. “When a Church begins to fracture around its compliance with its doctrine and ethics and discipline, it becomes a house divided. It becomes dysfunctional.”

According to its Book of Discipline, the denomination’s collection of laws and doctrines, Methodist pastors are not allowed to conduct same-sex weddings, and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained. In practice, however, a number of Methodist clergy and churches have made clear that they disagree with this teaching, at times openly defying it. A lesbian pastor, Karen Oliveto, was even elected a bishop in the Church, a position she still holds even though the denomination’s judicial council later ruled that her marriage to a woman violated Church doctrine. At the same time, other churches remain deeply committed to UMC teachings against same-sex marriage and relationships.

The United Methodist Church, which was formed in a 1968 merger between two denominations, has known for a long time that it would eventually have to address these deeply felt disagreements over LGBTQ issues. At the denomination’s 2016 General Conference, delegates asked UMC bishops to produce recommendations for how the Church should resolve divisions over LGBTQ issues. Over the next three years, Methodist leaders developed the One Church Plan, which would have allowed local pastors and regional conferences to make their own decisions, keeping the denomination together but allowing for diversity in its ranks.

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.

[Read: Hating queerness without hating the queer]

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.”

[Read: Gay and Mennonite]

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.

Now that the UMC has voted to reaffirm its stance against homosexuality and toughen punishments for churches and clergy that violate its teachings, a number of progressive churches might consider leaving the denomination. Before the meeting had even begun, churches from across the theological spectrum had begun looking into this possibility—Daniel Dalton, a lawyer in Michigan who specializes in religious-property issues, says he has talked with more than 700 churches that are thinking about making an exit. In the past, that hasn’t always been so simple: While local churches build and run their own congregation, bishops largely have control over what happens to their assets when they want to leave the denomination. “Everybody wants out,” Dalton says. “The only thing that’s holding them back is that their property could be taken away from them.” For some churches, this is about theology and unity. For others, “it’s a battle over money,” Dalton says.

Even some of the conservative churches that support the Traditional Plan might leave, Boyette said. His group, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, was founded as a potential alternative denomination for churches that describe themselves as orthodox and that oppose same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. Conservatives got what they wanted out of this General Conference, but “the patience of people is wearing thin,” he told me. His group will meet to assess next steps later this week.

In the final hours of the conference on Tuesday, the debate turned acrimonious: One delegate alleged, without clear evidence, that people at the conference were bribing others for votes. Another speaker’s mic was silenced when he threatened to filibuster any vote before the end of the day. And the debate came to an abrupt halt: Delegates had to clear out of the conference hall so that it could be turned over for a monster-truck rally.

Some Methodists, however, seem determined to keep fighting this battle within their denomination. “I am a 32-year-old, and I am one of the youngest delegates here. For a denomination who claims so desperately to want young people in our churches, maybe we need to reevaluate,” said Alyson Shahan, a delegate from Oklahoma who seemed to support LGBTQ inclusion in the denomination. “This body is not where the disciple making happens. Thank the good Lord, am I right?”

Another General Conference will take place in 2020, where any of these issues or proposals could be taken up again. “With the Traditional Plan that adds teeth [to Methodist standards and discipline around LGBTQ issues], you’ve not only alienated progressives, but also centrists,” Hamilton said. “Do you think these churches will quietly accept this regressive Traditional Plan with teeth? Will these churches protest less, or more, for LGBTQ persons in the future?”

“You’ve inspired an awful lot of people who were not really engaged in this struggle before,” Hamilton said. “And for that, I thank you.”