UMC Thursday updates: United Methodists strike down 52-year-old statement on homosexuality and Christianity

UMC Thursday updates: United Methodists strike down 52-year-old statement on homosexuality and Christianity
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly has dealt with most of the seemingly contentious proposals dealing with LGBTQ+ rights and restructuring the denomination in the wake of a historic splintering.

At the two-week UMC General Conference on its penultimate day, the 700-plus delegates are expected to vote on two major proposals, or petitions. One of those petitions would remove a prohibition on clergy or churches blessing same-sex unions, and the other is the final proposed section of the new UMC Revised Social Principles — specifically a section that replaces language saying homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

On Wednesday, the general conference approved key petitions lifting a ban on LGBTQ+ ordination, discontinuing a policy allowing churches to disaffiliate, and the last in a series of eight proposals seeking to restructure the denomination’s system of regional oversight, which is a legislative effort known as “regionalization.”

The UMC General Conference, which is the denomination’s top legislative assembly, gathers for its second and final week in Charlotte. This is the general conference in session on April 30, 2024 at the Charlotte Convention Center.

The disaffiliation and regionalization petitions are related to a splintering in the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination in which 7,500-plus U.S. churches left the UMC following disagreements over church policy and theology, including dealing with LGBTQ+ rights.

If the two key petitions before the delegates on Thursday succeed, it solidifies a shift from traditionalist-dominated legislative action at the UMC General Conference to a more influential progressive-and-centrist coalition.

UMC Thursday updates: United Methodists strike down 52-year-old statement on homosexuality and Christianity
UMC Thursday updates: United Methodists strike down 52-year-old statement on homosexuality and Christianity

Delegates approve social principles petition, striking down 52-year-old language on sexuality

By adopting the final proposal in a series of petitions that comprise a new version of the UMC Revised Social Principles, the UMC General Conference struck down 52-year-old language that said homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Originally implemented in 1972, that sentence on incompatibility served as justification for subsequent anti-LGBTQ+ policy restrictions on ordination and marriage. Also, the assembly’s vote of 523-161 to approve the revised social principles petition on Thursday changed the UMC’s previous statement on marriage as “between a man and a woman.”

The statement on marriage in the original proposal to this general conference was gender neutral, but delegates amended the section to say, “Within the church, we affirm marriage as a sacred lifelong covenant that brings two people of faith [adult man and woman of consenting age or two adult persons of consenting age] into union with one another and into deeper relationship with God and the religious community.”

The petition’s passage means the general conference has adopted the new UMC Revised Social Principles in full.

Revised social principles spurs passionate debate on LGBTQ+ rights

At virtually every United Methodist Church General Conference for decades, the most contentious debate has most often surrounded LGBTQ+ rights. This year is no different as delegates deliberate a proposed section of the new UMC Revised Social Principles.

A sweeping set of declaration of social values, a United Methodist agency and a standing committee have worked for years on a complete overhaul of the old social principles, which the denomination has been periodically amending for 50 years. Of those amendments, one of the most notable was an addition in 1972 that said homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The new UMC Revised Social Principles removes that incompatibility language. The proposal also does not stipulate that marriage is “between a man and a woman,” which the old version does.

There are six petitions at this UMC General Conference that comprise the new UMC Revised Social Principles in its entirety. Delegates already approved five of those petitions. The one outstanding petition the body is currently debating includes the section dealing with marriage and human sexuality.

Leaders of traditionalist advocacy groups respond to major legislative defeats

Following decisive defeats at this UMC General Conference, leaders of traditionalist Methodist advocacy groups that successfully mobilized general gonference delegates for decades decried what they saw as disenfranchisement and conservative suppression this week.

“To me, the message is that there’s not going to be a long-term place for traditional voices in the UMC,” the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, said in an interview. Lambrecht and two other conservative Methodist leaders, Good News president Rev. Rob Renfroe and Wesleyan Covenant Association president Rev. Scott Field, sat down with The Tennessean on Thursday in Charlotte to discuss major decisions by the UMC General Conference.

As traditionalist Methodist advocacy groups, Good News and the Wesleyan Covenant Association have historically organized around UMC General Conference legislation to enact and protect more conservative policy positions on sexuality and marriage. But this year, they focused mainly on provisions to allow United Methodist congregations outside the U.S. to leave the denomination, a process called disaffiliation.

But yesterday, the 700-plus delegates approved a petition formally ending the disaffiliation procedure. The body also adopted eight petitions for regionalization, an idea the traditionalists opposed. The assembly’s overwhelming approval of petitions dealing with regionalization and LGBTQ+ inclusion this week marked a significant shift in the denomination’s politics.

But Renfroe rejected the premise that the votes are evidence of a more strategic opposition, an idea that a caucus of LGBTQ+ delegates said this week displays. Renfroe cited the low number of conservative delegates due to the recent exodus of mostly conservative churches.

“This is not some great victory for the centrists and progressives that finally they figured out how to organize and strategize and beat us at our own game,” Renfroe said.

Parliamentary strategy aside, Field aid this week sent a message to traditionalist allies and rivals alike. The organization Field oversees emerged in 2016 to help churches leave the UMC and is now slowly winding down operations because most of the splintering has passed.

“Folks we’re working with here are in some ways gratified by a sense of crystal clear, ‘this is the UMC friends,’” Field said.

‘It did not happen overnight’: How LGBTQ+ clergy mobilized to end restrictions

An unexpected and devastating legislative defeat in 2019 spurred a diligent effort to target the removal of anti-LGBTQ+ restrictions, a yearslong effort that yielded success this week, said members of a LGBTQ+ caucus of general conference delegates in a news conference Thursday.

“It did not happen overnight,” Rhode Island pastor Rev. Effie McAvoy, a clergy delegate to the general conference, said in the news conference. “We’ve been dealing with this and working so delicately and so deeply. Today is just the day it culminated.”

This UMC General Conference displayed a decisive shift for centrist and progressive United Methodist groups and leaders, who mobilized to submit and support petitions for LGBTQ+ inclusion and regionalization. Historically, mobilization among traditionalist advocacy groups have secured legislative wins at the UMC General Conference. The most recent example was a 2019 special session of the general conference, when delegates narrowly approved a conservative policy plan.

That 2019 special session “caused great heartache and great distress,” McAvoy said. “But that distress opened the eyes of people who normally would have remained silent.”

A caucus of LGBTQ+ delegates emerged to draft dozens of petitions to submit ahead of the general conference seeking to remove anti-LGBTQ+ restrictions. Then, at the legislative assembly in Charlotte, that caucus — comprised of 31 main delegates and 43 reserve delegates — has been in constant communication about important parliamentary developments.

The work has paid off and “the UMC has eliminated anti-LGBTQ+ legislation from the (UMC) Book of Discipline, effectively ending 52 years of institutionally sanctioned discrimination,” McAvoy said.

Funding ban removal allows for new LGBTQ+ United Methodist history center

Following a decision Tuesday to remove the so-called funding ban, the UMC General Commission on Archives and History will open a new center for LGBTQ+ United Methodist history and heritage.

Announced by the chief executive of the denomination’s archives agency in a news conference Thursday, the new LGBTQ+ history center is a historic moment for UMC administration. The funding ban — prohibiting the use of church funds “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” — and other policies have restrained how the 13 total United Methodist general agencies, which manage the denomination’s various global ministries, publicly engage the subjects of sexuality and marriage.

The fight over LGBTQ+ rights in the UMC has been a defining conversation for 50-plus years ever since the passage of traditionalist-backed proposals at general conferences in the 1970s.

United Methodists’ Decision on Homosexuality and Christianity

Background of the United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church was created in 1968 through the unification of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church. During both the First and Second Great Awakenings, Methodism spread from Britain to the United States. Despite once having a large following in the southern United States, disputes over slavery and power caused the northern and southern churches to separate in 1844.

Out of the northern church derives the present United Methodist Church. United Methodism is a worldwide connection in which John Wesley’s pattern of Christian discipleship is the model in which Methodists form local congregations as well as carry Christ into the world. The United Methodist Church is organized into conferences. The conferences are made up of clergy and lay delegates.

There are 5 jurisdictions in the United States conferences and 7 more jurisdictions abroad the US conferences. The conferences are the basic bodies of the Church. They are responsible for the work of the Church in a certain area or on certain peoples, and generally consist of several Annual Conferences. The jurisdictions are groups of conferences that work together.

Mission is the organized activity in which 2 or more conferences participate intending to form a Christian community. The United Methodist Church has had a tendency to suppress other denominations and indigenous countries’ religion when trying to convert said people to Christianity. This was especially true in the United States with Native Americans and African Americans. Common resolutions have sparked in these areas.

The foundations of United Methodist mission are laid out in the following facts, as well as addressing the theological understandings that undergird mission. The mission engages United Methodists with people in the community and the church to bring transformation in the lives of the participants and those they serve.

It involves serving the poor and sick and advocating for justice. The mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This is the mission of every United Methodist, whether living out through teaching, healing, advocacy, or being a prophetic word in the witness of Christ’s love. This occurs in many moments of changing people’s lives through showing love and grace, or also systemic change populations of people.

The United Methodist mission has taken forms of evangelism, relief and development, and Christian education throughout the world. All mission is connected with the priority of establishing congregations and has taken partnerships with local congregations and church leaders.

The United Methodist Church is a product of the American Revolution. With this said, the church is influenced by the American cultural ethos and social issues of the day. Methodism has been very contextual in the US since its spread from England, adapting to the people to which it addressed and embarked into activities which were fitting to the time and culture.

Local congregations as well as regional and national judicatories have consistently made initiatives and taken stands on political issues and government policies. The result of various local and regional cultures and theological perspectives, the United Methodist Church is marked by a great deal of diversity. The church is divided over many issues that tend to pull it apart, yet it is still bound together by its common mission and connection.

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