The United Methodist Church moved toward becoming more progressive and LGBTQ-affirming during regional meetings in the U.S. this month that included the election of its second openly gay bishop. Conservatives say the developments will hasten their exit from one of the nation’s largest Protestant denominations.
Each of the UMC’s five U.S. jurisdictions – meeting separately in early November – approved similarly worded measures that aspire to a church future where “LGBTQIA+ people are protected, affirmed and empowered.”
They also passed non-binding measures asking anyone to step down from leadership roles if they plan to leave the denomination soon — a category that includes almost entirely conservatives moving toward the exits.
The denomination still officially prohibits same-sex marriage and the ordination of any “self-confessed homosexual,” and only a legislative gathering called the General Conference can change that.
But polls this month show growing momentum — at least in the American half of the global church — to defy those policies and seek to overturn them in the next legislative session in 2024.
Supporters and opponents of these measures have drawn on the same metaphor, saying their church is either becoming more or less a “big tent,” as United Methodists have long been described as a theologically diverse, mainstream denomination.
“It shows that the big tent has fallen apart,” said the Rev. Jay Therrell, president of the conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association, which helps churches that want to leave the denomination.
“For years, bishops have told traditionalists that there is room for everyone in The United Methodist Church,” he said. “Not a single traditional bishop was elected. Furthermore, we now have the most progressive or liberal board of bishops in the history of Methodism, period.”
But Jan Lawrence, executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which works to include Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities, applauded the regional jurisdictions. He cited their LGBTQ-affirming votes and expanding the bishops’ racial, ethnic and gender diversity.
Jurisdictions elected the church’s first Native American and Filipino bishops, with other landmark votes in specific areas, according to the United Methodist News Service.
“It’s a big church with a tent,” Lawrence said. “One of the concerns some have expressed is that we don’t have leadership in the church that reflects the diversity of the church. So this episcopal election doesn’t fix that, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Bishop Cedric Bridgeforth, elected at the Western Jurisdiction meeting, agreed. He is the first openly gay African-American to be elected bishop. The vote comes six years after the Western Jurisdiction elected the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop, Karen Oliveto of the Mountain Sky Diocese.
LGBTQ-affirming resolutions indicate “aligning the denomination more with the mainstream of our country,” Bridgeforth said. “It can also help us start focusing our conversations where we have unity of purpose, rather than focusing on divisions.”
Bridgeforth will lead congregations in the Greater Northwest Region, which includes congregations in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and small portions of Montana and Canada. He said he has always worked across ideological lines in his administrative duties and will continue to do so.
“I’ve used our differences as an opportunity to come together,” he said. “It creates more space for a different kind of conversation than, ‘This is different, this is bad, we can’t be together.’ makes this transition.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to be where they don’t want to be,” he said.
Progressive groups have said the church should be open to appointing bishops and other clergy, regardless of sexual orientation, who show they have the gifts for ministry and a commitment to serve the church.
Conservatives, however, say the church should follow its own rules.
“I am sure that Bishop Bridgeforth is a person of holy value, but he is not qualified to hold the office of elder, much less bishop, and should not have been elected,” Therrell said.
At least 300 US churches have left the denomination this year, according to the United Methodist News Service. Hundreds more are in the process of leaving, and Therrell predicted the number would be in the low thousands by the end of 2023. Overseas conferences in Bulgaria and Slovakia have ended their relationship with the denomination, and churches in Africa are considering it, he said.
Many are committed to the newly formed conservative denomination, the Universal Methodist Church.
The UMC is a global denomination. US membership has fallen to about 6.5 million, from a peak of 11 million in the 1960s. Overseas membership has soared to match or exceed that of the US, fueled mainly by growth and mergers in Africa. Foreign representatives have historically allied with American conservatives to support the church’s positions on sexuality.
Support for a compromise measure that would amicably split the denomination, negotiated in 2020; collapsed after that year’s legislative General Conference was postponed three times due to the pandemic. The next General Conference is now scheduled to begin in April 2024 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Vote from the 2019 General Assembly it was the latest of several in recent decades to strengthen the church’s ban on gay clergy and marriage. But that vote also prompted many local conferences to elect more liberal and centrist delegates, whose influence was felt in regional votes this month.
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