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Explainer: United Methodists retain ban on homosexual clergy and same-sex weddings

What just happened?

The United Methodist Church (UMC) is the largest mainline denomination, the second-largest Protestant denomination (after the Southern Baptist Convention), and the third-largest Christian denomination.

In 1972, the UMC added affirmations about human sexuality to their Book of Discipline, a document which collects the laws, doctrine, administration, organizational work, and procedures of the denomination. Included in the Discipline were the statements, “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

This language on sexuality has become increasingly unpopular with elements of the denomination that affirm homosexuality and same-sex marriage. During the 2016 General Conference, the Council of Bishops proposed the appointment of a 32-person committee called the “Commission on a Way Forward” to help the Council of Bishops submit a recommendation to a Special Session.

A Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church met on February 23-26 to “examine paragraphs in The Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and to explore options to strengthen church unity.” A majority of the delegates present voted to uphold the language on biblical sexuality.

What were the options considered by the Special Session?

During the Special Session, the delegates considered three options by the Commission on a Way Forward:

The One Church Plan: This plan “gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.” It would have removed the language from the Book of Discipline used in the United States that restricts pastors and churches from conducting same-sex weddings and annual conferences from ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexual persons. It would also have added language that intentionally protects the religious freedom of pastors and churches who choose not to perform or host same-sex weddings and Boards of Ordained Ministry and bishops who chose not to credential or ordain self-avowed practicing homosexual persons.

The One Church Plan was intended to honor “the perspective of United Methodists who believe that our current impasse over marriage and ordination of homosexual persons does not rise to the level of a church dividing issue.”

Connectional Conference Plan: This plan “reflects a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services. This plan creates three values-based connectional conferences that have distinctive definitions of accountability, contextualization and justice.” The plan would allow for the creation of new “connectional conferences” or joining one of the three values-based connectional conferences. Each connectional conference would have its own policies regarding LGBTQ weddings and ordination.

The Traditionalist Plan: This plan would require “accountability to the current Book of Discipline language.” It would also broaden the definition of self-avowed practicing homosexual to include persons living in a same-sex marriage or civil union or persons who publicly state that they are practicing homosexuals. It would also require bishops and every annual conference to “certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination.” Clergy who could not maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination would be encouraged to join the “autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.”

The Council of Bishops recommended that the denomination adopt the One Church Plan.

What was the outcome of the Special Session?

The delegates at the Session voted 438 to 384 in favor of the Traditional Plan.

How does this outcome affect the denomination?

To understand how the Special Session decision affects the denomination, it’s helpful to understand the polity of the UMC.

The UMC’s primary grouping of people and churches is the conference. Groups of local churches in a geographic area are organized to form a district, which, in turn, are connected to annual (regional) conferences. Jurisdictional conferences around the globe are also connected to the General Conference, an international body of nearly 1,000 delegates that generally meets every four years. Comprising delegates elected by annual gatherings of regional conferences, it is the only body that can speak for the denomination and set official policy in the Book of Discipline, the instrument for setting forth the laws, plan, polity, and process by which United Methodists govern themselves.

The Special Session had the authority to amend or uphold the language about sexuality. Additionally, new language will be added to the Book of Discipline that will make it harder for existing UMC churches to affirm homosexuality. For example, according to the plan that was adopted,

Annual Conferences will need to decide if they can fully abide by United Methodist Discipline in matters of human sexuality. Those that can do so will indicate that by their vote. Those that cannot in good conscience follow The United Methodist Church’s Discipline will form or join a self-governing church that gives them the freedom to perform same-gender marriages and ordain self-avowed practicing LGBTQ persons.

By voting to uphold the biblical view of sexuality, the LGBTQ faction in the denomination will almost assuredly split from the General Conference and thus disassociate from the other conferences and other local churches within the UMC. Local churches and clergy have until the end of April 2020 to decide whether they will remain in the denomination or leave and join a self-governing body.

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