Presbyterians’ latest sexuality showdown – banning conservatives – follows Methodists’ historic shift

United Methodis gay vote gc2024

Richard Ostling via Religion Unplugged

(ANALYSIS) Making history last week, delegates at a United Methodist Church General Conference in Charlotte agreed to allow same-sex clergy and marriages. Each UMC conference the past 52 years had upheld centuries-old heterosexual restrictions, most recently in 2019.

Since then, 7,658 conservative congregations — one-fourth of the prior total — have left the UMC in the biggest U.S. schism since the Civil War, which enabled lopsided support for change. [Pic from UMC News show the vote for the motion to change the position on marriage.}

Instead of the requirement that UMC clergy honor “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness,” they are now expected to practice “faithful sexual intimacy expressed through fidelity, monogamy, commitment, mutual affection and respect, careful and honest communication, mutual consent, and growth in grace and in the knowledge and love of God.”

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As depicted in my April 9 Religion Unplugged analysis, this sets the stage for what conservatives have called the “scramble for Africa.” Unlike America’s other “mainline” Protestant denominations that have lately repealed traditional moral tenets, the UMC encompasses millions of members in Africa and the Philippines who believe what the U.S. branch has now left behind.

The UMC hopes to head off any serious walkout overseas through “regionalization,” which Charlotte delegates approved for ratification votes by area conferences. Instead of uniform worldwide policies on clergy or marriage (which American progressives refused to obey), the conservative foreigners could continue traditional teaching while the American branch is free to go its own way. 

The Rev. Scott Field, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which fostered the U.S. split, hopes Africans will also leave the UMC and join American conservatives in the new Global Methodist Church, which will be organized at a September 20-26 conference in Costa Rica. It’s now clear, he said, that “the New UMC is substantially at odds with the faith and practice of many African United Methodists.” 

After Charlotte, he thinks, Africans’ decision “about their relationship with the UMC will be unavoidable” and “the day of rising up is just ahead.” Another leading Methodist conservative, Mark Tooley, wrote that “many African bishops, who depend on U.S. dollars,” favor continued ties with the U.S.-based UMC under regionalization, “but I doubt most Africans will be persuaded. Ultimately, millions of Africans will likely quit United Methodism.”

Well, we’ll see. While that drama develops, the sexuality spotlight shifts to America’s Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has already approved gay clergy and marriage but is heading into a different sexuality fuss that carries some risk of another church split. 

This is the deadline week to submit legislative bills (known as “overtures”) to the denomination’s June 25-July 4 General Assembly in Salt Lake City. No doubt the hottest issue there will be proposed amendments to the Book of Order that affect remaining Presbyterians who oppose the new sexuality. The proposal comes from Olympia Presbytery in Washington state, with concurrences filed by regional presbyteries in six other states. 

One amendment would add “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to the categories in which discrimination has “no place in the life of the Church.” The PC (U.S.A.) guarantees members in such designated groups “full participation and representation” in “governance” and other aspects of church life. A second amendment would require that the approval for ordination and installation of clergy include “the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements” specified by the first amendment. 

After conservatives lost the long-running PC (U.S.A.) sexuality battle, their Fellowship Community organization has carefully avoided further advocacy on denominational issues. But that changed on April 5 with a cry of alarm from the group, which declared that the Olympia amendments would be “devastating” by mandating “one interpretation of Scripture” and ignoring “freedom of conscience.” 

This caucus contends that “thousands of PC (USA) pastors and elders would be excluded — and if enforced, driven out of the denomination.” Hard to tell on the numbers, but this suggests a potential fourth conservative split from mainline Presbyterianism, following formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (1973), Evangelical Presbyterian Church (1981) and Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO (2011). These three denominations combined have grown to encompass 2,666 local congregations, compared with a decline to 8,705 in the PC (U.S.A.). 

The next political move will be the response to conservatives’ concern from the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which helped lead the PC (U.S.A.) into full sexual inclusion. Its executive director, the Rev. Brian Ellison (also administrator of the synod covering Kansas and Missouri), has said that a policy statement on the Olympia proposal will be forthcoming soon. 

Whatever the assembly decides, it will be providing a special “space” for gatherings of LGBTQ+ delegates. The PC (U.S.A.) publishes resources to promote full participation in church. And its newly established Equity Advocacy Committee urged Presbyterians to “celebrate the diverse identities of transgender and non-binary individuals” on this year’s Transgender Day of Visibility, which happened to fall on Easter Sunday.

Richard N. Ostling was a longtime religion writer with The Associated Press and with Time magazine, where he produced 23 cover stories, as well as a Time senior correspondent providing field reportage for dozens of major articles. He has interviewed such personalities as Billy Graham, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI); ranking rabbis and Muslim leaders; and authorities on other faiths; as well as numerous ordinary believers. He writes a bi-weekly column for Religion Unplugged.

Image Credit: Paul Jeffrey, UMC News