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United Methodists will again debate LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings

A quarter of U.S. congregations in the United Methodist Church have left the denomination as of December due to disagreements over whether to ordain LGBTQ clergy and perform same-sex weddings.
Charlie Riedel
A quarter of U.S. congregations in the United Methodist Church have left the denomination as of December due to disagreements over whether to ordain LGBTQ clergy and perform same-sex weddings.

Same-sex weddings and LGBTQ clergy are two of the topics front and center as the United Methodist Church opens it General Conference Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C. In recent years, the church — which is one of the largest Protestant groups in the U.S. — has seen many if its congregations leave over the issues.

Currently, the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the church's rule book, says "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." That sentence was added in 1972 during the rise of what was then called the gay rights movement. Elsewhere, the book also prohibits United Methodist clergy from performing same-sex weddings, and it says the church does not ordain LGBTQ clergy.

The General Conference, which includes United Methodists from around the world, is the only church authority that can change the rules around issues of sexuality. It could do a variety of things with the rules' language: it could leave it as it is; it could remove it altogether; or it could remove what some consider more negative language and add affirming language.

In 2019, the United Methodist Church held a special meeting in St. Louis to address LGBTQ issues, but no change came about from that meeting, and decisions were to be made in 2020. However, the pandemic intervened and church officials felt a virtual meeting to discuss such deeply divisive issues was ill-advised. So the General Conference beginning Tuesday is the first to be held since 2020.

During the intervening years, a number of things happened within the church that makes this meeting more pressing. Many local geographic conferences of the church chose not to enforce the bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage. Many congregations, upset over that non-enforcement, chose to leave the denomination. Some became independent congregations while others joined a more conservative moment called the Global Methodist Church.

The deadline for "disaffiliating," as it was called, from the United Methodist Church was last December. More than 7,600 (about one quarter) of its congregations voted to leave left the mainline Protest denomination.

A church transformed?

The departures of the most conservative congregations led some to believe the United Methodist Church would then shift to a liberal denomination. But research out of Duke University that surveyed clergy and congregations in North Carolina, where Duke is located, tells a somewhat different story.

The university's Religion and Social Change Lab found, as expected, that clergy who left were more conservative than those who stayed. It also found that, even among those clergy who remained, a quarter oppose LGBTQ ministers and nearly a third oppose same-sex marriage.

David Eagle, who heads the Religion and Social Change Lab says another finding was also a surprise.

"I'd also been left with the impression that this split would make the United Methodist Church a more progressive denomination," he says, "and in some ways amongst the clergy, that has happened. But amongst congregations, congregations still remain very evenly divided both theologically and politically."

One reason for that disconnect, according to Eagle, is that in order to leave the denomination, congregations needed to vote by supermajority rather than simple majority to do so, which means congregations in which a majority of people wanted to leave are still part of the United Methodist Church.

That said, individual members may depart their congregations over the issue and find an independent one or one that's now affiliated with the Global Methodist Church.

The clergy are not okay

Another finding that Eagle is quite worried about involves the mental health of clergy. Duke's Clergy Health Initiative has been tracking the mental health of all United Methodist clergy in North Carolina since 2008.

The study found significant numbers of ministers say they're suffering from high levels of stress, exhaustion, depression and anxiety, in part because they've been dealing with the divisions over LGBTQ issues and in part because of the lingering consequences of the pandemic, including financial woes and lower church attendance.

"Now about 15% of clergy who are remaining in the denomination have depressive symptoms," says Eagle, "that would qualify them for being diagnosed with clinical depression."

Other studies have shown that the mental health of mainline Protestant clergy is worse than the mental health of evangelical protestant clergy and Roman Catholic clergy.

Mainline Protestant denominations, the largest of which include the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and the United Church of Christ, have seen precipitous drops in membership and participation over the last 50 years. LGBTQ issues have also dominated internal conversations in these same denominations, all of which, except for United Methodists, have each decided after years of strife, to allow to one degree or another LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings.

These churches are also seeing very low numbers of seminary enrollment, meaning the next generation of leaders are not on the way to offer relief to currently stressed and depressed pastors.

Searching for a path forward

The departure of the most conservative congregations and clergy from the United Methodist Church means there's a better chance than before that the rules around same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy could change. But others have suggested a middle path option, which would allow regional geographic conferences to decide for themselves and not have a unified policy across all of the church.

This option, which could be adopted at the Charlotte meeting, would essentially codify what's already happening within the church: more liberal conferences such as those in southern California would continue to ordain LGBTQ clergy and allow ministers to perform same-sex weddings while more conservative conferences such as those in the southern U.S. or parts of Africa would not allow such ordinations or weddings.

Whatever decisions are made, many Methodists are hoping their church will be able to move on after years of focusing on these issues. Patricia Ferris, who has served as senior minister at First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, Calif., for 26 years, says she hopes moving forward means a return to the issues that have long been important to the church.

"Methodists have always been concerned about our communities, about unhoused people, about labor issues" she says. "How do we focus our energy in caring for people and changing the world and making life better for more people? That's what we're really about."

That's not to say, Farris points out, that addressing LGBTQ issues isn't important. She says she wants all people to feel welcome at Methodist congregations. But many have viewed the seemingly single focus on same-sex weddings and LGBTQ clergy as distractions.

Farris says perhaps Methodists' witness to the greater world is to demonstrate how to live together despite deep differences.

"My hope would be," she says, "that the church would be a place where we learn how to love each other, to serve our communities together, to pray, to worship, to sing together. And out of these relationships, learn to respect one another."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.