The United Methodist Church, America’s third-largest religious denomination, will likely break apart over members’ inability to reconcile differing opinions on whether to affirm queer Christians.
Delegates to the UMC’s General Conference meeting in St. Louis ended a three-day meeting on Tuesday by strengthening the enforcement of existing church doctrine prohibiting same-sex marriage and the ordination of queer clergy.
The vote for what members call the “Traditional Plan” is expected to trigger a schism in the denomination along the lines of LGBTQ inclusion. The plan was approved on Tuesday by a vote of 438 to 384, meaning about 53 percent of delegates voted in favor.
An alternate option called the “One Church Plan” would have allowed individual churches and regional conferences to decide for themselves whether to allow LGBTQ members to be ordained or married. That plan was defeated on Monday, earning only 47 percent of delegates’ votes. An option to reconsider the One Church Plan on Tuesday was also defeated.
Queer Methodists and their allies were heartbroken by the church’s decision. At the conference, some began singing the hymn “Blessed Assurance” directly after the vote.
On Twitter, many people expressed their disappointment ― and resolve.
Bishop Karen Oliveto, a lifelong Methodist and the church’s first openly lesbian bishop, told HuffPost she worries the General Conference’s decision sends a message to young queer United Methodists around the world that they are “unwanted.”
“Great spiritual harm has occurred,” Oliveto said in a statement to HuffPost.
Still, she added, “God is not through with us yet.”
“I pray that out of the pain we are currently experiencing as a denomination, God’s Holy Spirit will bring forth a church that will demonstrate to the world that all persons bear the image of God and strengthen our social witness as an agent of compassion and justice,” Oliveto said.
Progressive Christians from outside the UMC also shared their dismay about this week’s developments.
Created during a merger in 1968, the UMC now has about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the U.S. The church represents a wide spectrum of political views: Former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is a Methodist, as is former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In America, the denomination has its own universities, a publishing house and other ministries, Religion News Service reports.
For years, the UMC has been grappling with the possibility of a schism over whether to welcome queer Christians. Progressive members of the church are in favor of ordaining queer clergy and allowing Methodist ministers to officiate at same-sex weddings. Despite the church’s official prohibition of such actions, progressive clergy members have become increasingly vocal in recent years ― coming out as queer or unapologetically conducting same-sex marriages.
But conservative Methodists want the church to crack down on those who flout the church’s official rules. And as the UMC experiences a growth spurt overseas, this bloc is becoming increasingly significant. About 30 percent of the delegates to this week’s meeting hail from Africa, The Associated Press reports, and tend to hold conservative views about homosexuality.
“We Africans are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics,” Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean at a Methodist theology school in Liberia, said at the conference, the AP reported. “We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal church elite in the U.S.”
After disagreements over sexuality roiled a UMC General Conference in 2016, the denomination formed a special committee to study the issue. The committee spent 17 months coming up with options for how the denomination could move forward. More than 860 delegates flocked to St. Louis on Sunday to consider various plans and decide the church’s future.
J.J. Warren, a gay delegate and lifelong Methodist from the Upper New York conference, delivered a passionate speech in St. Louis on Monday about his desire to become a UMC pastor. A student at Sarah Lawrence College, Warren has founded a progressive Christian community on his campus. He told delegates that the ministry has “brought people to Jesus” who “didn’t know God could love them because their churches said God didn’t.”
“If we can be a church which brings Jesus to people who are told they can’t be loved, that’s what I want our church to be,” Warren said during his speech. “That’s the Methodist Church that I love and that I want to be a pastor in one day.”
Progressive Methodist pastors and representatives shared videos of Warren’s speech on Twitter ― and gave him a standing ovation during the meeting.
Ralph Mays, a queer lifelong United Methodist from Atlanta, wrote in a Twitter thread Monday that it has been “absolutely heart-wrenching” to watch delegates debating whether he should be welcomed in the church.
In the end, the Traditional Plan won, with a majority of delegates affirming a passage in the church’s rulebook stating that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Multiple attempts to expand the Traditional Plan to include restrictions against divorced Methodists and those in polygamous relationships also failed. These efforts were largely attempts by LGBTQ Methodists and their allies to highlight the hypocrisy of only targeting queer Methodists for their sexuality.
Ted Campbell, a professor of Methodist history at Southern Methodist University, told HuffPost he believes the conference will trigger a schism in the UMC.
“I think the divisions are already in place,” Campbell said. “We’re just waiting to see what concrete forms they will take.”
The breakup will likely be messy, he added, because next year’s general conference could overturn some or all of what is decided at this year’s meeting. It would also take a few years to sort out who will go the route of separation and how soon they will form other church bodies.
The UMC isn’t the first mainline Protestant denomination to face divisions over welcoming LGBTQ Christians. Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians have splintered over differences in opinion about gender and sexuality.
Church schisms have led to legal disputes over church property in other mainline denominations. A UMC split could also result in lawsuits, Campbell said.
Last summer, the UMC’s California-Nevada conference removed two pastors from San Francisco’s progressive Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, which has 12,000 members. The conference then filed a lawsuit seeking to gain control over the church’s property, the AP reports.
This article has been updated with comment from Bishop Karen Oliveto.