After 44 years of debating sexuality issues, the United Methodist Church voted by a narrow margin on Wednesday to allow bishops to appoint a commission to re-evaluate rules on gay, lesbian and transgender clergy and marriage.
The 428-to-405 vote by the delegates to the church’s quadrennial conference in Portland, Ore., was seen by many as a last-ditch effort to save the church from schism.
It was celebrated by L.G.B.T. Methodists and their supporters as a way to buy time and avoid church discipline against more than 100 clergy and clergy candidates who came out as gay in advance of the conference.
But it disappointed many conservatives who were exasperated that their church is still arguing over what they see as clear church teachings that prohibit openly gay and transgender clergy, and same-sex marriage. The church’s Book of Discipline, its governing document, says that the “practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
During the debate on the convention floor, Marquice Hobbs, a young delegate from Texas, urged church members to “lay aside all the political jargon, take a stand,” and “do not be afraid to break.”
But George Howard, the delegate from Ohio who proposed the measure, responded, “I am not afraid.”
He said, “I believe that our leaders are ready, willing and able to lead this church to discover a new way forward for us all.”
The United Methodist Church is the third-largest religious body in the United States, after the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, with about seven million members, including Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush. It has 12 million worldwide. Its membership ranges from theological liberals to conservative evangelicals.
While many mainline Protestant churches, like the Presbyterian Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have moved to permit gay clergy and same-sex marriages, the Methodist church has remained opposed. That is mainly because it includes branches in Africa and Asia that are growing rapidly and are theologically conservative while the American branch has had declines.
The church’s liberals had hoped that growing acceptance of gay people and gay marriage in the United States would provide momentum. But faced with likely rejection, they embraced a proposal to ask the church’s Council of Bishops to find a way forward. The council is made up of all active and retired bishops from the church’s 46 areas in the United States and 20 outside.
The bishops’ council proposed that the conference defer all votes on sexuality measures; more than 100 such measures were sent to the 10-day meeting. The bishops proposed that they appoint a representative commission to undertake a “complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.”
The bishops’ statement said that they heard from many members that the rules had language that was “contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful and inadequate” for a diverse and global church.