UMC Gives Up Love and Inclusion for Lent

The ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ clergy strengthened

The period of Lent has just begun in the Christian calendar and with it comes the United Methodist Church’s (UMC) vote to strengthen its opposition to same-sex marriage and the appointment of queer clergy members. The vote took place on 26 February at the UMC 2019 General Conference in St Louis, USA, with 438 delegates voting to strengthen the church’s ban on same-sex marriage versus the 384 delegates who voted against the ban.

The UMC was first established in the U.S and is the second largest Protestant denomination in the USA, but now also has members from around the world, representing about 12 million members worldwide. It is the largest denomination within the wider Methodist movement of about 80 million members. This General Conference was a leadership meeting where church policy was discussed and decided, specifically this year with regard to how the church deals with LGBTQI clergy and same-sex marriage.

The church’s ‘Traditional Plan’, one of three proposed options, passed with 53% of the votes, and will continue to affirm the church’s current bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and officiating at or hosting any same-sex marriage ceremonies. It will also boost penalties and accountability for any transgressions of these bans.

This follows the 1972 declaration from the UMC that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and has been designed to create a coherent and unified policy for all Methodist churches under the UMC banner, as the debates surrounding homosexuality have been increasingly divisive within the Methodist church.

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey observes the results from a Feb. 26 vote for the Traditional Plan, which affirms the church’s current bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage. The vote came on the last day of the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

According to the UMC’s official website, the current period of Lent “is a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection,” although it would appear that all the reflection has already been done, and a decision that is homophobic and unloving has been made. This decision is likely to create rifts within the Methodist church itself, with many pastors and LGBTQ advocates vowing that the fight against the ‘Traditional Plan’ was far from finished. 

Some of those opposed to the ‘Traditional Plan’, and the increased penalties against the LGBTQ community, are in favour of the ‘One Church Plan’. According to a poll done through Mainstream UMC it is reported that at least two thirds of U.S delegates at the General Conference supported the ‘One Church Plan’, which would have allowed pastors, individual churches and regional bodies to make their own decisions, follow the conscience of each church, on the issues of homosexual marriage and ordination. This proposal was overruled by the 53%, made up of both U.S and international delegates, who voted in favour of heavier banning on gay marriage under the ‘Traditional Plan’.

Protestors chant during the United Methodist Church’s special session of the general conference in St. Louis on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Photo by Sid Hastings/AP.

While the ‘One Church Plan’ seems the more inclusive route for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and their affirmation into the church, Jan Lawrence of the UM Queer Clergy Caucus says that none of the plans, including the ‘One Church Plan’, is progressive enough to “meet our mission of affirmation and inclusion”. Their alternative ‘Simple Plan’ proposes, “simply to remove the language from the Book of Discipline that excludes LGBTQIA+ people from full participation in the church. The UMC can choose to remove the restrictive language from our Book of Discipline without forcing the hand of those who are still wrestling with the idea of the full inclusion of LGBTQAI+ persons in the church.” The Book of Discipline, while not sacrosanct, is documentation of the laws, plans and polity of the United Methodist Church and its language is clearly discriminatory towards LGBTQIA+ persons. The ‘Simple Plan’ proposes the removal of the “Disciplinary language that prohibits LGBTQIA+ inclusion” but “does not require any United Methodist clergy to perform a same-gender wedding. Individual congregations would be allowed to continue in their own discernment” much as the ‘One Church Plan’ proposes.

Members of the United Methodist Church reacting to the defeat of a proposal that would have allowed gay clergy and same-sex marriage, at a church conference in St. Louis on Tuesday. Photo by Sid Hastings/AP.

However, neither of these more inclusive plans was adopted at the 2019 General Conference, instead a strengthened ban on LGBTQI+ marriage and clerical ordination was voted for and will be enforced. This means that the church takes a step further into discrimination, while gay marriage and rights for LGBTQI+ persons outside are increasing with each passing year, as 2015 saw the U.S legalize gay marriage. Will churches leave the denomination in search of more LGBTQI+ affirming alliances? Or will the fight for LGBTQI+ marriages and ordination within the United Methodist Church continue in the years to come?

Header image by Maiya Harvey

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