Methodists tackle human sexuality issues — again

This week, 15 United Methodist Church clergy and candidates for ordination came out together as gay to their congregations and to the UMC, which does not ordain practicing gay men and women or conduct same-sex marriages. It is the first time clergy and clergy candidates have come out en masse in the UMC, and it comes a week before the second-largest U.S. Protestant denomination holds its General Conference where, for the 10th time in four decades, it will address the position of LGBTQ people in the church.

The terrain covered at the General Conference, held every four years, is both rocky and familiar. The church has removed clergy who have come out as gay and it has disciplined others who performed same-sex marriages, even when the officiating pastor was father to one of the grooms. The UMC has struggled with the role of homosexuals at every General Conference for four decades. The divisions are deep — according to church research conducted in 2015, 46 percent of U.S. members agree with the church’s ban on same-sex marriage, while 38 percent disagree. There are about 7.3 million members in the United States, but the church is experiencing major growth in more conservative Africa. There are rumors of schism.

How will the voting go? Will there be schism, or a breaking away of conservative congregations to other, more conservative denominations? Or will Methodists join the ranks of the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, among others, in affirming homosexuals as fully participating members? Or will the UMC find what some in the church are calling a “third way” that would leave it up to individual pastors and local church bodies to decide for themselves?

Meeting resources

The United Methodist Church’s General Conference will be held May 10-20, 2016, at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. The church has provided multiple resources about the meeting and its goals, including:

  • A website with information about the meeting.
  • A meeting overview.
  • A searchable section on legislation.
  • The Daily Christian Advocate, a publication of the church, which includes the agenda, rules, delegate listings, petitions, reports from the general agencies/commissions and study committees, information for delegates and codes of conduct for the General Conference. It will be published daily during the conference and should include transcripts.
  • A list of voting delegates and reserves.
  • A downloadable conference smartphone app.

The church’s current position on homosexuality, gay marriage and ordination for gays can be found here.

Methodists will consider multiple plans regarding homosexuals and the church:

A Way Forward is a plan proposed by a group of Methodist clergy and lay people opposed to schism over the issue of homosexuality. The plan would allow local church bodies to decide whether to perform gay marriages, and church conferences would be allowed to determine whether they will ordain practicing homosexual clergy. To date, it has more than 2,700 signatories.

The Reconciling Ministries Network supports the “Simple Plan,” which would change six paragraphs of the church’s Book of Discipline.

The Connectional Table plan (also called the “Third Way Plan”) would allow individual clergy to decide whether to perform same-sex unions. It would also make homosexuality and performing same-sex unions not punishable by the church.

The Institute on Religion & Democracy’s United Methodist Action has a resource titled “Who Are These People?” It looks at the groups and organizations on different sides of the debates to be taken up at the General Conference.

Other conference legislation of interest to religion reporters: a proposal for the UMC to withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; a statement on religious liberty and individual rights; a proposal to divest from fossil fuels; a proposal to divest from companies that supporters contend support the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; a proposal to welcome migrants.


Denominations that allow ordination of gays and lesbians

  • Episcopal Church — In 2009, the Episcopal Church voted to make gays and lesbians eligible for any ordained ministry.
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church of America — In 2009, the ELCA voted to allow gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy.
  • Presbyterian Church (USA) — In 2011, the PCUSA voted to lift the ban on gay clergy. The PCUSA rejected a proposal in 2012 that would have reinstated the ban.
  • United Church of Christ — In 1972, the UCC became the first mainline Protestant denomination to ordain an openly gay minister. The UCC has been one of the most accepting denominations of the LGBTQ community in the United States.
  • Conservative Judaism — In 2006, the highest legal body in Conservative Judaism voted to allow the ordination of gay rabbis.
  • Reform Judaism — Reform Judaism has allowed the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis since 1990.

Surveys, polls and other resources

  • United Methodist Communications conducted a poll in late 2014 — and again after the Supreme Court’s June 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage — that illustrated the divisions within the church on gay marriage. Chief among the findings: After the ruling, 54 percent of clergy agreed with the church’s ban on same-sex marriage; only about 41 percent of church members agreed. Full results of the poll can be found here.
  • Stand Firm

    Stand Firm stands for “traditional Anglicanism in America” and tracks discussion and media coverage over religious debates including sexuality.

National sources

  • Mark Bowman

    Mark Bowman is founder and coordinator of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Religious Archives Network at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. He was an original member of the National Religious Leaders Roundtable of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and has been a part of multiple programs dedicated to inclusivity in the United Methodist Church.

  • Warner H. Brown Jr.

    The Rev. Warner H. Brown Jr. is a United Methodist Church bishop and head of its California-Nevada Council. He has also served as president of the UMC’s council of bishops. He is based in Sacramento, Calif.

    Brown told Religion & Politics he did not think the Supreme Court’s June 2015 ruling on gay marriage would affect the UMC’s stance on gay marriage.

  • John Lomperis

    John Lomperis is the United Methodist action director for the Institute on Religion & Democracy, which supports renewal and orthodoxy within American Christian denominations. He is an expert on liberal and conservative groups within the United Methodist Church.

    Lomperis is a delegate to the 2016 UMC General Conference and director of UMAction. “UMAction typically avoids taking positions on public-policy issues on which faithful Christians can disagree,” Lomperis writes, “but we do challenge attempts to divert our church from its holy mission for the sake of secular political agendas.”

  • Ian Markham

    The Very Rev. Ian Markham is the dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary. He is an expert on mainline Christianity, and he wrote a book, with the Rev. Martyn Percy of Oxford, called Why Liberal Churches Are Growing. Markham is also the author of Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris Are Fundamentally Wrong.

  • Thomas Ogletree

    Thomas Ogletree is a United Methodist minister and the Frederick Marquand professor emeritus of theological ethics at Yale Divinity School. He has said he believes the debate over homosexuality indicates the church will eventually change its position.

  • Jack B. Rogers

    The Rev. Jack B. Rogers is a lifelong evangelical and former leader of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In March 2006, he published a book, Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church, describing how he has changed his position from opposing gay ordination to supporting it.

  • James Stanton

    Bishop James Stanton of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas has been active nationally and internationally in the Anglican debate over the role of gays in the church. He was involved in the founding of the American Anglican Council, which works to oppose the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians. 

  • Justin Tanis

    Justin Tanis is managing director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. Tanis is the author of Trans-gendered: Theology, Ministry and Communities of Faith.

  • Mark Tooley

    Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, a faith-based organization that tracks how Christian denominations respond to issues such as religious liberty, LGBT rights and immigration and often advocates for a more conservative approach.


Religious organizations

  • Concerned Methodists

    Concerned Methodists was founded in 1990 in response to what its founders perceived as the increasingly liberal priorities and direction of the United Methodist Church. Its members work to promote a “restoration of Christian values” informed by a commitment to the church’s Wesleyan heritage. It is based in Fayetteville, N.C.

    They are against same-sex marriage and larger roles for openly gay people in the church.

  • Good News

    Good News, a magazine launched in 1967, represents the vanguard of Methodism’s conservative counteroffensive. It remains a major player in the efforts to limit expanded roles and rights for homosexuals in the UMC. The Rev. Rob Renfroe is its president and publisher. It is based in The Woodlands, Texas.

    Good News published a letter in 2014 suggesting the UMC avoid a split over its differences on gay ordination. The letter attracted more than 200 signatories.

  • Institute on Religion & Democracy

    The Institute on Religion & Democracy is a prominent lobby uniting conservatives across the mainline Protestant denominations to push for more traditional policies in American churches and for more conservative policies in American politics. The IRD is considered a major player in the battles over gay rights in churches.

  • Love Prevails

    Love Prevails is an advocacy group led by United Methodist minister Amy DeLong. It seeks full inclusion of LGBTQ people within the United Methodist Church and the repeal of “anti-gay” language and practice in the UMC and the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The group is based in Madison, Wis. Contact through the website.

  • Reconciling Ministries Network

    The Reconciling Ministries Network is a movement within the United Methodist Church that works for the inclusion of all people in the UMC regardless of sexual orientation. Contact through director of communications M. Barclay.

  • Transforming Congregations

    Transforming Congregations was founded in 1988 as a renewal and reform ministry within the United Methodist Church. It works to provide churches and church leaders with the resources to respond to “those struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction and behavior.” It advocates for responses to homosexuality that are neither homophobic nor accommodationist. In 2013, TC became an official program of the United Methodist organization Good News. TC is based in Maine, N.Y. Garry Ingraham is executive director.

  • United Methodist Action

    UM Action is part of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, a faith-based alliance of Christians working to monitor, comment on and report on issues affecting the church. It was founded in 1994 by Mark Tooley, IRD’s president, with the goal of bringing greater transparency and accountability to United Methodism through reporting and advocacy work. John Lomperis is director of UM Action. IRD is based in Washington, D.C.

Nondenominational and secular organizations

  • Soulforce

    Soulforce is a national interfaith movement that promotes the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The organization is based in Abilene, Texas. Haven Herrin is executive director.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Margaret A. Farley

    Margaret A. Farley is the Gilbert L. Stark professor emerita of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn. She is Catholic and has written widely about Christian sexual ethics.

  • Robert A.J. Gagnon

    Robert A.J. Gagnon is an associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. His expertise is in sexual teachings in the Bible, with a focus on homosexuality.

  • David F. McAllister-Wilson

    The Rev. David F. McAllister-Wilson is president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., a Methodist institution. Contact him through Amy Shelton, director of marketing and communications.

    McAllister-Wilson opposed the ordination of LGBT clergy and was one of 200 signatories to a 2014 letter proposing the UMC avoid a split over its differences on gay ordination.

  • William Pfohl

    The Rev. William Pfohl is senior pastor of Jesse Lee Memorial United Methodist Church in Ridgefield, Conn. He is the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry  for the church’s New York Conference, which announced in March 2016 that, in defiance of church rules, it would not consider an ordination candidate’s sexual orientation.

    Contact: 203- 438-8791 ext. 101.

In the South

  • William B. Lawrence

    William B. Lawrence is a professor of American church history and dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and has expressed concern that the debates over homosexuality could lead to lasting schisms.

  • William K. McElvaney

    The Rev. William K. McElvaney is professor emeritus of preaching and worship at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and former president of St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. McElvaney has been a leading voice on issues of social justice throughout his ministry and supports gay ordination. Contact him through the SMU office of news and communications.

  • Lesley Armstrong Northup

    Lesley Armstrong Northup is an associate professor of religious studies at Florida International University in Miami. She wrote “Homosexuality in the Evolution of American Christianity,” a chapter in the volume Religion & Sexuality: Passionate Debates, edited by C.K. Robertson.

  • Ben Witherington III

    Ben Witherington III is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. A prolific author and an ordained minister, Witherington can talk about the historical tensions between Christians and Jews and current cultural manifestations of those tensions. He is the author of Jesus and Money: A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis, an examination of “what Jesus has to say (and doesn’t say) concerning wealth and poverty, money and spending, debt and sacrificial giving.”

    Witherington calls himself an evangelical and has pressed for a clearer stand by the UMC on gay issues.

In the Midwest

  • Stanton L. Jones

    Stanton L. Jones is provost and professor of psychology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. He has written on homosexuality and Christianity from an evangelical perspective. Contact through the Wheaton College media relations office.

In the West

  • Daniel Spencer

    Daniel Spencer is an associate professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Montana in Missoula. He has written widely about homosexuality and Christianity.

  • James K. Wellman Jr.

    James K. Wellman Jr. is a professor of American religion, culture and politics and chair of the comparative religion program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has written on homosexuality in American churches and the question of gay ordination.

  • Melissa M. Wilcox

    Melissa M. Wilcox is an associate professor of religion at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and director of the Gender Studies Program. Her writing and research focus on the interplay of Christianity, homosexuality and identity. She is the author of Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity & Community.

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