The United Methodist Church (UMC), which has 12.7 million members worldwide -- including nearly seven million in the U.S., will convene a Special Session of the General Conference on Saturday, February 23, in St. Louis to decide the future of LGBTQ people within the church.
Until now, the UMC has effectively disallowed gay, lesbian and bisexual people from being ordained as ministers, saying that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” While transgender people are not barred from ordination on the basis of gender identity and an attempt to do so failed in 2008, future changes in the church could have an impact on transgender ministers. The UMC also has barred ordained ministers from performing same-sex weddings.
General Conference attendees will be considering whether to lift these limitations on the church’s LGBTQ faithful -- and the outcome may determine whether the church continues as one, or splits.
The UMC has been navigating LGBTQ inclusion for years. In 2016, the General Conference, the church's governing body, created the Commission on a Way Forward (CFW), which was charged to “examine paragraphs in the Book of Discipline [governing document of the UMC] concerning human sexuality and to explore options to strengthen church unity.”
The Council of Bishops, which oversees the UMC’s worldly and spiritual interests, called the Special Session to act on both the CFW's report and recommendations regarding LGBTQ inclusion, as well as additional petitions from other groups within the church.
- One Church Plan: Recommended by the Council of Bishops, it would affirm that unity and mission are more important than disagreements, and allow individual churches and conferences within the UMC to choose their own path of LGBTQ inclusion while remaining in the church.
- Connectional Conferences Model: This plan, considered by the Council of Bishops, would keep a unified core institution and one Council while creating separate branches of the UMC, which would define accountability, context and justice regarding LGBTQ inclusion for themselves.
- Traditionalist Model: This is not recommended by the Council of Bishops, and would keep current Book of Discipline language that states the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and maintain -- and, potentially, make more strict -- punishment for those who stray from following the language of the Book of Discipline that limits inclusion of the LGBTQ faithful.
Two additional plans will also be considered:
- The Simple Plan: This plan follows the UMC tradition of “do no harm,” removing harmful anti-LGBTQ language and allowing all to be full participants in the Church.
- The Gracious Exit Proposal: This plan asks for a vote on an exit plan to be taken before all other votes, and would allow conferences and churches to leave the UMC.
So, what’s next?
If the coalition behind the One Church Plan holds, we will see the UMC join the ranks of denominations fully welcoming LGBTQ people -- including the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples Of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA). If the “traditionalist” plan succeeds, the UMC will remain an unwelcoming space for LGBTQ Methodists for the foreseeable future.
A final vote is not expected until Monday.
This critical vote not only affects LGBTQ members of the UMC, but will determine whether the church remains united in the future. HRC calls on the leaders of the UMC to live by their axiom “do no harm” and find a path forward that recognizes all people, regardless of who they are or who they love, as beloved children of God.