On the eve of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference, two declining liberal regional bodies within the church are openly defying the denomination’s policies forbidding the ordination of sexually active gay clergy.
The Baltimore-Washington and New York Annual Conference boards of ordained ministry (BOOM) announced in a May 3 open letter that they will no longer “inquire about the sexual orientation of their candidates” and are calling upon other boards to do the same.
“While there continues to be significant debate about human sexuality in our church and broader culture, there is an emerging consensus of the UM voices in the United States which believe that our denomination has placed unhealthy prohibitions on the full participation of LGBTQ persons in the life of our church, but which are unwilling to act on this conviction for fear of stepping outside the order of the church,” the letter reads. Declaring their unilateral defiance, the two Annual Conference BOOMs “have independently decided that it is time to create the space to act out of our freedom of conscience, and our experience of God’s power at work through women and men who identify themselves as LBGTQ disciples of Jesus Christ.”
The declaration seeks to pressure the denomination’s top legislative gathering, meeting May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon, which is sharply divided between primarily U.S.-based LGBT advocates and a global coalition that seeks to uphold traditional Methodist teachings on marriage and sexuality.
The letter’s authors, the Rev. Dr. Charles A. Parker of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, and the Rev. Dr. William B. Pfohl of the New York Annual Conference, maintain that the boards of ordained ministry “have the right to make recommendations to their Annual Conferences based on standards for effectiveness worked out collaboratively with the cabinet and their discernment of the fitness, readiness, and fruitfulness of individual candidates.”
Church policies forbid sexually active gay clergy, but some officials charged with screening candidates have skirted the Book of Discipline language forbidding the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” by avoiding asking clergy direct questions. In some cases, offending clergy avoid answering direct questions about sexual activity with the same-sex, claiming to follow the letter of the law, since if a prospective candidate does not self-avow they may claim that there is “insufficient evidence” that they are sexually active.
A petition supported by the Institute on Religion & Democracy’s UMAction Committee and allied renewal organizations closes this loophole by defining “self-avowed” to include being joined in a legal same-sex marriage. Under the proposal, if a clergy member is in such a relationship, it is sufficient grounds for removal from ministry – with no need to ask probing questions about their sexual activity to prove that they are self-avowed.
The BOOM letter from the two annual conferences is not the only declaration of ecclesiastical disobedience in the lead-up to General Conference. Fifteen clergy and candidates for ordination in New York publicly came out as “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer” in a May 1 open letter to the people of the United Methodist Church.
“We call on LGBTQI United Methodist clergy and candidates everywhere to come out and join us in the refusal of further acquiescence to a system that silences and excludes LGBTQI people,” the letter declares. The clergy group also called upon Boards of Ordained Ministry to refuse to “publicly declare their refusal” to enforce existing prohibitions and upon bishops to refuse to process complaints against sexually active LGBTQI clergy.
Both of the two annual conferences have been locked into membership and attendance decline for some time. The New York Annual Conference lost 4.2 percent of its membership and 6.3 percent of its reported weekly attendance between 2013 and 2014. The Baltimore-Washington Annual conference lost 1 percent of membership and 3 percent of attendance during the same time period. In the first half of the decade, Baltimore-Washington has seen a 10 percent decline in total attendance while New York has witnessed an 18 percent decline.
Those regions in the global church seeking to uphold traditional Methodist teaching on marriage and sexuality are the fastest-growing regions of the church, especially those found in Africa, which have reported a combined increase of approximately 250,000 members each year. In contrast, the U.S.-based jurisdictions have reported an average loss of 100,000 members a year.
UPDATE [5/6/2016]: The Pacific Northwest Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry has joined the Baltimore-Washington and New York annual conferences in opening the door to non-celibate homosexual clergy. In a May 5 vote, the board affirmed that “people of all sexual orientations and gender identities” can meet standards for “fitness, readiness, and effectiveness in ministry.” The board wrote that it was already operating with such an understanding, but “At this critical time in the history of The United Methodist Church, we believe it is important to state explicitly how we have been operating implicitly.”