The United Methodist Church, the nation’s second largest denomination, is on the brink of splitting.
The news comes after more than half the delegates at an international conference in St. Louis voted to maintain Biblical stances on marriage and to continue the rule against the ordination of homosexual clergy.
Some gay rights activists within the denomination are saying they’ll leave the church unless they get their way.
A final vote on rival plans for the church’s future won’t come until Tuesday’s closing session, and the outcome remains uncertain. But the preliminary vote Monday showed that the Traditional Plan, which calls for keeping the LGBT bans and enforcing them more strictly, had the support of 56 percent of the more than 800 delegates attending the three-day conference in St. Louis.
The primary alternative liberal proposal, called the One Church Plan, was rebuffed in a separate preliminary vote, getting only 47 percent support. Backed by a majority of the church’s Council of Bishops in hopes of avoiding a schism, it would leave decisions about same-sex marriage and ordination of homosexual and transgender clergy up to regional bodies and would banish language taken from the Bible saying, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The more liberal plan is supported the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. He contends it offers a way for Methodists “to live together – conservatives, centrists and progressives – despite our differences.”
But Hamilton is reluctant to just follow the Bible’s precepts as a course of action. In interviews, Hamilton states he believes that people can interpret the sections on homosexuality however they see fit saying that, “faithful United Methodist Christians can interpret the Scriptures differently and for good reason.”
Church of the Resurrection is well-known in Kansas City for supporting a view on homosexuality that often contradicts the teachings of the Bible.
At a rally of activists in Texas Hamilton stated that Christians can support gay marriage and not be at odds with orthodoxy. He argued that both sides of the debate within the UMC held high opinions of Scripture and that the differences were over interpretation instead.
Hamilton took issue with the idea that Christians accepting same-sex marriage means that they have rejected “the historic essentials of the Christian faith.”
“So orthodoxy now means that I hold a particular view of same-gender marriage and/or a particular view of Scripture that gets me to a particular view of same-gender marriage,” stated Hamilton.
“I think that’s a tragic reading. It’s interesting it doesn’t show up in any of the creeds, anything about same-gender marriage or even a particular doctrine on scripture doesn’t show up in any of the creeds, but that’s now become how some have looked at orthodoxy.”
Hamilton was an early organizer of the One Church Plan which calls for changing the Book of Discipline to remove language labeling homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” allowing churches in the United States to permit same-sex weddings and gay ordination while letting clergy and some overseas conferences retain opposition.
Monday’s votes did not kill the One Church Plan but makes its prospects on Tuesday far more difficult.
As evidence of the deep divisions within the faith, delegates Monday approved plans that would allow disaffected churches to leave the denomination while keeping their property.
“This is really painful,” said David Watson, a dean and professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, who was at the gathering. “Our disagreement has pitted friend against friend, which no one wanted.”
Formed in a merger in 1968, the United Methodist Church claims about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the U.S. While other mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Episcopal and Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches, have embraced the two gay-friendly practices, the Methodist church still officially bans them, even though acts of defiance by pro-LGBT clergy have multiplied and talk of a possible breakup has intensified.
The strong showing for the Traditional Plan reflects the fact that the UMC, unlike other mainstream Protestant churches in the U.S., is a global denomination. About 43 percent of the delegates in St. Louis are from abroad, mostly from Africa, and overwhelmingly support Biblical Christian views on marriage and ordination.
“We Africans are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics,” the Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean at a Methodist theology school in Liberia, said in a speech over the weekend. “We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal church elite in the U.S.”
The Africans have some strong allies among U.S. conservatives, including the Rev. John Miles II, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Jonesboro, Arkansas, who opposes same-sex marriage and gays in the pulpit.
“I have a very difficult time even though I have gays in my family and in my church,” he said. “I know it grieves them and it grieves me to grieve them. But it’s just what we believe is the truth.”
In recent years, the church’s enforcement policies that line up with Biblical views on sexual orientation and traditional marriage has been inconsistent. Some clergy members have conducted same-sex marriages or come out as gay from the pulpit. In some cases, the church has filed charges against clergy who violated the bans, yet the denomination’s Judicial Council has ruled against the imposition of mandatory penalties, which typically called for an unpaid suspension of at least one year.