Methodists remove anti-LGBTQ policies

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Monday May 6, 2024
Share this Post:
Bethany United Methodist Church pastor Sadie Stone spoke during the May 5 worship service. Photo: Brian Bromberger
Bethany United Methodist Church pastor Sadie Stone spoke during the May 5 worship service. Photo: Brian Bromberger

After decades of strife over the role of out LGBTQs in pastoral life, the United Methodist Church has removed barriers against homosexuality. The changes may have been the most consequential in the Protestant denomination's history since its official creation in 1968.

Long-standing barriers against LGBTQs were struck down with lightning speed at UMC's quadrennial General Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina that took place April 23-May 3. The gathering was delayed for four years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The denomination's ban on ordaining "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" was deleted from its rulebook to which it had been first added in 1972. Also overturned was the prohibition preventing clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings. Clergy or churches cannot be penalized for holding same-sex weddings, though they are not required to do so. Delegates also voted to end a ban on using church funds to "promote acceptance of homosexuality."

Amazingly, all these changes occurred by delegates voting, 692-51 with 93% in favor, without any debate in an atmosphere described as upbeat rather than vitriolic, as had been the case at past general conferences.

According to the Reconciling Ministries Network, an advocacy group for queer people in the United Methodist Church, a total of 324 gay clergy, which includes ordination candidates, exist in the UMC, of which there are 160 in same-gender marriages.

UMC is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. with 5.4 million Methodists as of 2022, though that number will drop after last year's departures. In 2019, at a special session of the general conference, delegates voted to tighten an existing ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriages. The action led to a schism that saw conservative Methodist churches — seeing that the changes enacted last week were on the horizon — leave the denomination. Those churches were allowed to keep their property and assets once they received approval to exit by the end of 2023.

Some churches joined the newly formed conservative Global Methodist Church, while others chose to remain independent. According to UMC, 7,600 traditionalist churches left, about 25% of the total number of UMC congregations. The departure of so many conservative delegates enabled progressive delegates to reject anti-LGBTQ policies at this year's conference. Still, the conservative churches remaining in the UMC, while voting against the changes, wanted to move forward, despite their disagreements, according to reports.

The most significant vote occurred on the first day of the conference when delegates agreed to restructure the global denomination into large geographic regions, to allow each region greater autonomy in outfitting church life to its own traditions and customs, especially regarding the contentious sexuality/marriage issue. Each region can also customize part of the Book of Discipline (the UMC's rulebook) to fit local needs. This provision needs to go before each individual province for two-thirds majority ratification by December 2025. This plan recognizes the divisive differences on sexuality driving worldwide Methodists apart. Many delegates believed regionalization was the only way Methodists could remain together.

Methodist Bishop Karen Oliveto. Photo: Courtesy UMC Mountain Sky Conference  

Bishop Karen Oliveto was the first openly lesbian bishop to be elected in the UMC in 2016. She currently serves as the bishop of the UMC's Mountain Sky Conference based in Colorado. She was formerly the senior pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco when it was part of the denomination.

"In too many churches, once young people begin to question their sexual orientation or gender identity, the message they receive is that God's love is now conditional. This causes deep spiritual harm. Someone who doesn't have a nurturing environment to grow into the person God created them to be lives a stunted life, never living into their full potential," Oliveto stated in an email to the Bay Area Reporter.

"Church ought to be the place where every child of God will find a loving and accepting home to be who they are. The United Methodist Church made huge changes to be that loving place through General Conference actions," she wrote.

Oliveto added that not all Methodists may be happy with the changes.

"There are some United Methodists who are going to think we went too far by removing the language that declared homosexuality as 'incompatible with Christian teaching,' allowing clergy to preside over same-gender weddings (if they choose to do so) and allowing LGBTQ clergy. I hope you will enter into a time of wondering: why would these pass overwhelmingly by delegates from around the world (the ban against LGBTQ clergy only had 51 no votes out of the entire body)? What scriptures would prompt people to adopt these positions? How do these statements help us 'do no harm; do good, and stay in love with God?'" she added.

"We gain a bigger picture of who God is, particularly when we include those who don't look like us, think like us, or love like us," Oliveto stated. "There are people of all ages in your community who are looking for a grace-filled community that allows them to ask questions, to be able to take tentative and shaky steps to explore who God made them to be, to find themselves in a community who will cheer them on when they do so."

"I pray that our United Methodist Churches will be such loving places. May no child of God ever think they are beyond God's love. May they be able to sing throughout their life: 'Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so,'" she wrote.

Broader definition of marriage
Delegates also adopted a revised broader definition of marriage "as a sacred, lifelong covenant that brings two people of faith (adult man and adult woman of consenting age or two adult persons of consenting age) into a union of one another and into deeper relationship with God and the religious community." They debated the issue for over an hour, accepting an amendment by a Zimbabwean delegate, Molly Mwayr, who wanted to reaffirm marriage as also between a man and a woman with the wording "consenting age" added because child marriage is common in Africa.

Among LGBTQ delegates there was jubilation, including singing hymns (i.e., "Draw the Circle Wide"), cheering, applause, and wearing rainbow colors. Religion News Service included a quote from the Reverend David Meredith, a gay Cincinnati pastor and chairman of the board of the Reconciling Ministries Network. "Today I feel for the first time in 43 years of ministry in the United Methodist Church that the church is not out to get me," he said.

Bishop Tracy Smith Malone, the new president of the UMC's Council of Bishops and the first Black woman to serve in that role, described the atmosphere in the room as a "Pentecost moment," and called the vote "a celebration of God breaking down walls." She also quoted Methodist founder John Wesley, "Although we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?"

The Reverend Kristin Stoneking, Ph.D., associate professor of United Methodist studies and leadership at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, posted an open letter on the webpage of the PSR-affiliated Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion, "While this is a celebration for those inside the denomination, it's also a victory for champions of dignity and human rights everywhere. This change in UMC policy has been labored for by many, some of whom contributed decades of work but didn't live to see this day.

"For me, this journey began in 1998 with a refusal to answer anti-LGBTQ+ questions during the ordination process," she wrote. "The courage of the body in Eastern Kansas, which affirmed my gifts and graces for ordination despite the ban on LGBTQ+ ordination, is an example of the many who resisted and brought us to this day. In 2016 I worked with a team to organize a mass coming out of queer United Methodist clergy, which led to the founding of the Queer Clergy Caucus. Now that our work and prayers have been answered, I give thanks and celebrate all who have made this change possible."

SF reaction
Five years ago, when the 2019 conference approved the Traditional Plan, which reaffirmed the denomination's ban on the ordination and marriage of queer Methodists, the B.A.R. visited Bethany United Methodist Church in Noe Valley, a congregation that was half LGBTQ and half straight. The paper returned there to gauge members' reaction to the general conference revisions.

Pastor Sadie Stone, a straight ally, told the B.A.R., "I'm so excited. I've been hoping for this day. I've been a United Methodist most of my life and its exclusionary language against LGBTQ clergy was put in the Book of Discipline in the year of my birth, so I've literally never known a fully inclusive church.

"It was a profound moment to watch the joy that erupted and to see the church I knew we were capable of being come into fruition, with an overwhelming vote, 93% approval. So it wasn't even close," Stone added.

"All the work and pain of generations of people fighting for this moment, many of whom are no longer here to see this change. I took time to remember some of the saints of Bethany, like Bruce Pettit, who didn't see the fruits of his hard work," she added, referring to the late former B.A.R. City Hall and political reporter, 1977-79, who also hosted the "Viewpoint" cable TV show on SFs politics, 1991-2006.

As for the future of the UMC, Stone continued, "It will only have positive effects. We've already done the split. My hope is that we can do the work of healing and recovery for those who had to leave in the less inclusive areas of the country. I hope they will be welcomed back into churches so they will be able to live into their call whether it's becoming clergy or feeling fully welcome into the churches of their childhood and youth, recognizing they are fully loved by God, no matter who they are, a belief Bethany has always proclaimed."

Lesbian longtime congregant Gloria Soliz was ecstatic about the news. "It's been 52 years since that punitive language on homosexuality went into our Book of Discipline — and it's the only punitive language that has ever been in there. It didn't fit into who we understand ourselves to be, or fit into our understanding of what Jesus was about. I'm glad it happened in my lifetime."

Soliz attended PSR in the early 1980s. "I was on the ordination track. It was hard for me not to be out. I am who I am, but the further I went on my path, the more punitive the language became. It was so heavy and oppressive. I could only progress to be ordained a deacon and didn't continue to full ordination. It was actually a relief, as I could get on with my life."

Bethany was very supportive to her. It was one of the churches that organized the Reconciling Ministries Network. "What happened at last week's conference is a new day, now that the conservative disaffiliating homophobic congregations have left," Soliz added. "We're one of the last mainline Protestant denominations to make these pro-LGBTQ changes, so we can be in ministry in a really full way. We're a lot leaner, but many positive things can now happen."

Gay congregant John Nelson noted the changes "were long overdue. It's been a battle and never made sense to me why these restrictions were there since we had gay and lesbian clergy in our midst. It's history-making."

"As for the future, I'm hoping the church will come together and realize we are all children of God even if we all have different beliefs," Nelson added. "We are all here to worship the same things."

His husband, Jeff Friant, felt sad about "the holdouts who see the world in a very different and unfortunately curious way with an out-of-touch view of the Bible which is anti-gay and lesbian. I would love to convince them our way is the more inclusive, more Jesus' way, who loves everyone as they are. These traditionalist churches are places of harm and hurt, rejecting people. I hope we get the message out that everybody is welcome in the UMC. As for the future, I hope the UMC grows with this more inclusive spirit, opening up an engaging path to social justice."

The Reverend Israel Alvaran has worked with Reconciling Ministries Network as an organizer since 2013. He attended last week's general conference.

"This change didn't just happen overnight. RMN has been doing this advocacy work for 40 years," he wrote in an email. "We have queer siblings standing up to oppressive policies since the 1970s. We engage with elected delegates, especially those who come from more conservative regions in Africa and the Philippines, providing resources and education on key legislative priorities."

"I'm a cradle United Methodist and all my life, until last week, I lived under the prohibitions of my church against LGBTQ+ persons," Alvaran stated. "I am filled with joy and gratitude that liberation for queer people in this church has begun. It's only a first step because queer justice is intersectional. The church still has work to do — to dismantle racism, sexism, colonialism, and economic inequity."

Alvaran recognizes that some parts of the global Methodist Church will remain traditional in their definition of marriage and retain bans on gay clergy. "More organizing and education need to happen in these regions," he added. "We have yet to be fully affirming of queer lives and loves, but the transformation has begun."

Alvaran believes the changes are a huge deal for LGBTQ+ United Methodists. "Now our churches and clergy can celebrate same-gender weddings without fear," he stated. "We, LGBTQ+ clergy, can serve fully without hiding who we are. We have opened the door for queer siblings called to ordained ministry to serve. To do justice for those who have been defrocked for being queer or for officiating in same-gender weddings, this General Conference also approved a process for them to regain their clergy status. For me, the message is simple and rooted in grace. The harmful laws have been struck down. The circle has been drawn wider. Everyone can come home!"

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife.
Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!