A recent survey sponsored by United Methodist Communications finds that opinions on same-sex marriage in the United Methodist Church have changed little since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue.
Since 1972, Methodist doctrine as set forth in The Book of Discipline has taught that same-sex marriage is unChristian and that ministers who officiate such ceremonies are answerable for Church discipline.
According to the UMC website, the poll reported that:
• About 54 percent of pastors agreed with the church’s ban on same-sex marriage after the Supreme Court ruling, compared to 59 percent before the ruling. About 38 percent now disagree with the ban, up from 32 percent.
• About 54 percent of lay people in leadership roles agreed with the ban after the ruling, compared to 50 percent before. As with pastors, about 38 percent disagree with the ban ─ a drop of 1 percent.
• About 41 percent of members agreed with the ban after the ruling, compared to 46 percent before. About 42 percent now disagree with the ban, up from 38 percent before the ruling.
However, the methodology of the survey suggests that the poll results are not what they seem.
The poll divided United Methodists into the categories of pastors, leaders, and members. Pastors included ordained clergy as well as licensed local pastors and lay preachers. Leaders were defined as lay people holding any leadership role in the church, which could including anything from teaching Sunday school to service on any church committee. Members included people who self-identified as United Methodists, but who do not currently hold a leadership role.
There is a particular problem with this definition of membership as it counts individuals of very nominal standing, often not official members in a congregation, who are likely unfamiliar with Methodist doctrine as set forth in The Book of Discipline. Those called leaders more accurately fit the description of members, according to Walter Fenton, a United Methodist clergyman and analyst for Good News, since most who attend United Methodist churches on a regular basis are also active members of the parishes. When the categories are redefined to stricter definitions, the results would show only a slightly greater support among Church membership for same-sex marriage, and a greater percentage of support for the Methodist ban on it among the clergy and leadership.
Survey subjects were also polled on their adherence to other tenets from The Book of Discipline such as the statements, “God’s grace is available to all,” and “We seek to live together in community.” To this aspect of the poll, the pastors and lay leaders agree with the statements at 99 percent and 100 percent respectively. Just 81 percent of members who do not hold leadership roles agreed with the statements. About 9 percent disagreed and 10 percent indicated they neither agreed nor disagreed. Oddly, the survey showed that members were less likely than clergy and leadership to welcome gay individuals to church and include them in worship, despite The Book of Discipline teaching that all people are welcome and eligible for membership. While 92 percent of leaders and 93 percent of lay leaders said they would be welcoming, only 76 percent of members agreed and 16 percent were undecided.
The popular narrative has been that the clear majority of American United Methodists favor the gay marriage cause; however the results of United Methodist Communications provide optimism for Methodist adherence to Church doctrine – this is not to mention that United Methodists overseas are largely opposed to same-sex marriage. While the population at-large has grown increasingly favorable of homosexual marriage and the Supreme Court ruling, the UMC statistics of opposition to same-sex marriage remain higher even than good poll results.