The United Methodist Church’s bishops succeeded once again in suppressing prolonged and divisive plenary debate over sex at their denomination’s quadrennial governing General Conference, meeting May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon.
Delegates initially rejected narrowly and then narrowly accepted the Council of Bishops’ proposal that all legislation about sex be referred to a commission the bishops will appoint, and which will report to a possible special called General Conference in 2018.
Legislation reaffirming the church’s prohibition on same sex rites had prevailed in legislative committees but, under the current arrangement, will not be discussed in plenary. In 2012, after a relatively brief debate that reaffirmed the church’s stance that homosexual practice is “incompatible” with Christian teaching, the bishops negotiated a tabling of all other sex legislation. Then, as now, legislative committees had reaffirmed and proposed strengthening church teaching affirming sex only between husband and wife.
A plenary legislative majority of USA evangelicals and overseas delegates likely would have approved the traditionalist petitions, having already quickly elected its slate of 5 new members on the church’s top court. Judicial Council often adjudicates the church’s disputes on sex. The new members backed by Evangelicals include a Mozambican woman, a Norwegian, a Filipino, a Vietnamese American, and a woman law school dean. Although a slate backed by liberals swept the 2008 election, only one strong liberal remains on the 9 member council.
Bishops have striven to avoid prolonged General Conference debate over sex in part to avoid further divisiveness and to minimize disruptive demonstrations by LGBTQ protesters. It’s also no secret that most of the 46 active USA bishops are more liberal than the global church and do not personally support traditional Christian teachings on marriage. Most of the 20 non-USA bishops, especially Africans, are more conservative. Reportedly only 9 bishops opposed their council’s proposal to end General Conference debate in favor of a commission.
United Methodism, which has 7 million USA members and over 5 million overseas, has debated homosexuality every General Conference since 1972. It is nearly alone among traditionally liberal Mainline denominations that have formally not surrendered traditional Christian sexual ethics. Like other Mainlines, United Methodism has been losing USA members for 50 years. Unlike other Mainlines, the church has a large overseas membership that will soon become a majority.
Liberal USA clergy have become increasingly defiant of church rules against same sex rites and sex outside male-female marriage, with liberal bishops unwilling to respond forcefully. As part of General Conference tradition, LGBTQ demonstrators repeatedly interrupted this General Conference with well-timed protests prearranged with the bishops. Sometimes the rainbow clad protesters, many of them recognizable from previous General Conferences, appeared with tape over their mouths signifying their supposedly being silenced by the church. In one protest, several writhed on the convention floor hog-tied to illustrate their captivity to church disapproval. Delegates carefully stepped around them.
As apparently there’ll be no more official conversation at this General Conference about sex, it’s unclear if protesters have any major additional interruptions scheduled. Some LGBTQ activists celebrated the bishops intervention against further tightening of church policies while others lamented that intervention ensured current church disapproval of sex outside male-female marriage continues.
Protests against United Methodist policies reflect the growing expansion of sexual identities in American culture. One protester active on social media celebrated his asexual identity. A delegate who’s minister of a small New England congregation told her legislative committee about marrying a transgender who professes to be male although biologically born female. The male head of Methodism’s oldest liberal caucus denied an inaccurate report he was marrying a man, declaring himself too “queerasf-ck” for a “heteronormative” institution like marriage.
About two dozen bishops, most of them retired, signed a letter of solidarity with “LGBTQI United Methodists leaders,” with the “I” standing for intersex. “We call The United Methodist Church to repentance for its lack of love for all God’s children, and for its arrogance in believing that we establish the boundaries of God’s love,” they wrote in their public declaration released during General Conference.
Legislation passed in one legislative committee called upon United Methodism to offer more published resources on the denomination’s official marriage and sexual teachings. But the bishops’ proposal negated this initiative, leaving the church with traditional teachings but no ability to explain them. Instead there is an ongoing cacophony of demands for affirmation of all sexualities, largely met with silence by official United Methodism.
This General Conference, with two days remaining, seems so far not to have produced any major legislative accomplishments, resembling the 2012 General Conference, which approved a major church restructuring, only to have it overturned by the church’s top court on the convention’s final night.
But at least one more General Conference has averted the official liberalization on sex that has precipitated schism in other Mainline Protestant denominations. The overseas church can continue to grow while the USA church continues its half century of steady decline without the accelerating implosion suffered by the Episcopal, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ denominations.