MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: a nearly 50-year-old debate over human sexuality within one of the world’s largest Protestant denominations.
JILL NELSON, HOST: The United Methodist Church has 12-million members. It is governed by The Book of Discipline. That outlines denominational doctrine and practice and states that the church does “not condone the practice of homosexuality” because it is inconsistent with Christian teaching. That language, put in the Book of Discipline in 1972, has been challenged over and over again — without success.
REICHARD: Now, a growing number of Methodist churches, pastors, and bishops are making what could be a final push to change the Book of Discipline. They want to approve same-sex relationships, ordain openly homosexual clergy, and allow same-sex weddings—all things currently prohibited.
NELSON: Methodists will hold a special “General Conference” four months from now in hopes of settling the debate once and for all. WORLD Radio’s Paul Butler brings us this report about what might result from that meeting.
PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Calls for changing official United Methodist teaching on homosexuality have been a common occurrence at General Conferences since the 1970s.
AUDIO: [Sound from 2012 conference]
So far, every attempt has failed—mainly because of the number of conservative delegates from Africa. When another attempt to change the wording failed in 20-16, the General Conference appealed to the Council of Bishops to take leadership in settling the dispute.
AUDIO: [Sound from 2016 conference]
Initially, two plans emerged from a special committee the bishops put in place. The first allows local conferences to follow their consciences on the issue.
HOLLAND: The One Church plan recognizes an open ecclesiology that we’re not all of one mind on the issue of homosexuality or a variety of issues.
Mark Holland is cofounder of Mainstream UMC, an advocacy group actively promoting the so-called “One Church Plan.”
That plan would change all language in the Book of Discipline regarding homosexuality and allow supportive churches to embrace those practices. But any church or regional conference that objects to performing same-sex marriages, or ordaining gay clergy, could abstain.
HOLLAND: I think it boils down to are we willing to see the role of the church in the world as bigger than this one issue?
A second, more centrist approach, would carve up the United Methodist Church into three sub-denominations. Under this proposal, instead of regional church conferences as exist now — Northeast, Southeast, and so on — the United Methodist Church would create three connectional conferences—allowing churches to affiliate with like-minded congregations across the denomination—whether progressive, traditional, or centrist.
Chris Ritter is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Geneseo, Illinois:
RITTER: I’m one of the few people that actually liked that. I think, it has a lot of integrity. It treats everyone a non-punitively…
But Ritter believes the Connectional Plan has virtually no chance of passing because it not only overthrows current Methodist governing practices, it also would require amending the United Methodist constitution, something that, by design, is very difficult to do.
So, Ritter’s prepared to vote for a third option—one proposed by theological conservatives. The “Traditional Plan” calls for a affirmation of the current Book of Discipline provisions on sexuality plus enforcement of penalties for clergy who refuse to abide by those provisions. It also encourages any who won’t abide by United Methodist doctrine or practice on this and other issues to find a church home elsewhere.
RITTER: I think the issues before us are not over some obscure passage in Leviticus. It’s about the definition of marriage. I think it’s really about fidelity to the gospel and to our identity as people.
Rob Renfroe is a pastor at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, just north of Houston. He also serves as president of Good News, a reform ministry within the United Methodist Church.
RENFROE: I think the greatest harm that you can do to people is to tell them something is true that is contrary to what God has revealed to be true.
He advocates for the Traditional Plan.
RENFROE: Now we always need to speak truth with great love and compassion, but if we ever think loving compassion means not telling people the truth of God’s Word, we have done them a huge disservice.
Regardless of the outcome of February’s Special Conference, everyone agrees a difficult season lies ahead. Some congregations will leave the United Methodist Church, others may lose assets, and existing clergy pension obligations will have to be figured out. But pastor Chris Ritter believes the long-conflicted denomination will grow through it:
RITTER: So hopefully we’ll get over this hump and we do the harder work ahead, which is how do we reach this culture with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler.