Representatives of the United Methodist Church voted Tuesday to uphold traditional church bans against homosexual clergy and same-sex marriage — a move that could lead to a schism in the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
Delegates at the church’s international summit in St. Louis voted 438 to 384 to adopt the Traditional Plan, after earlier having rejected the bishops-approved One Church Plan, which would have allowed individual congregations to decide whether to allow gay pastors and same-sex marriages in their churches.
The vote was pushed predominantly by members of delegations from African and Southeast Asian countries, where homosexuality is criminalized, and by conservative church representatives from the Southern U.S.
It signals a deep and perhaps unbridgeable divide between American Methodist churches, which have widely accepted and supported LGBT members and leaders, and the more conservative international congregations, which have adhered to and enforced traditional church teachings that their liberal brethren in the U.S. have ignored.
If the bans were eased, “the church in Africa would cease to exist,” said the Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia. “We can’t do anything but to support the Traditional Plan. It is the biblical plan.”
Earlier Tuesday, supporters of the One Church Plan failed to bring it to a plenary vote by substituting in its language for the Traditional Plan vote.
“We mourn that the minority report OCP did not pass to replace the TP,” the Reconciling Ministries Network said in a Facebook post after the vote. “God weeps. The Spirit rages. The children of God are undefeated.”
The issue of homosexuality has roiled several Christian denominations over the last decade. After years of heated debate, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has allowed the ordination of LGBT ministers and the teaching of elders to officiate same-sex marriages since 2011. Individual congregations can decide whether to permit gay weddings. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America also allows for same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy.
But Methodists have faced a particularly fraught battle.
“All of the mainline [Protestant] churches have fought intensively over the issues of LGBT clergy and same-sex weddings,” Heather White, a religion professor at University of Puget Sound, said in an email. “But all of the other denominations have found ways to agree to disagree, except for the Methodists.”
Ms. White said the political spectrum from very conservative to very liberal runs through the United Methodist Church’s membership and the church’s tradition of having a very tight governing structure “doesn’t accommodate disagreement.”
The United Methodist Church was formed via a merger in 1968 and counts more than 12.5 million members worldwide. American churches account for about 7 million of that total, placing them behind only Southern Baptists in Protestant membership in the U.S., The Associated Press reported.
On Monday, delegates to the international summit approved plans that would allow disaffected churches to leave the denomination while keeping their property.
Though many of the more than 800 delegates sported buttons with a red line through the word “schism” on their lapels, Tuesday afternoon’s debate returned to questions about property rights should some congregations decide to leave the church.
At issue was language in “The Book of Discipline,” a governing document for the church written in the 1970s that says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained as ministers, appointed to serve or be married in the church.”
In 2016, a meeting of the church’s General Conference — comprising delegates from congregations that meets every four years — was embroiled in debate on the issue of gays in the church. The bishops founded a commission to study the issue, and this week’s special session was convened in St. Louis with hopes the faithful could find a way forward.
How Tuesday’s vote will affect individual churches remains an open question. An association of Methodist theological schools warned that if the Traditional Plan passes, the church “will lose an entire generation of leaders in America.”
On the floor during the run-up to the vote, delegates’ statements ranged from exhortations about sexual morality to accusations of hypocrisy.
Mark Holland, a supporter of the One Church Plan, held up the Bible beneath “The Book of Discipline” to illustrate his feelings that opponents were placing church rules over sacred text.
“Whatever the One Church Plan would’ve done to your churches, this hateful Traditional Plan will do to our churches,” Mr. Holland said.
But Ruc Chikomb, a delegate from Katanga, a province of Congo, stood up to accuse him of “destructive behavior,” breaking a rule of the faith.
Delegate Aislinn Deviney from Rio, Texas, also stood on Tuesday to urge support for the Traditional Plan.
“We all have friends and family in the LGBT community who we do value,” said Ms. Deviney, who said marriage should only be appropriate between a man and a woman. “We may disagree, but we hope for God’s best in their life.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.