This week, the United Methodist Church held a special conference to address the issue of what to do about same-sex marriage and gay clergy.
And, after not dealing with these issues, exactly as they’ve done at the past several (quadrennial?) General Conferences, the UMC has decided, once again, to do nothing.
Same-sex couples cannot be married in the Methodist church or by Methodist clergy, nor can gay persons be ordained as ministers. The traditional stance of the Book of Discipline has been reaffirmed and, according to some reports, strengthened. (I’m not going to get down into the weeds on what the Traditional Plan the conference accepted actually does, as I don’t know.)
I come from generations of Methodist stock (with some Quaker and Episcopalian thrown in there). I was raised in the Methodist church. While I don’t remember what the Wesleyan TULIP is, I attended a church named for Francis Asbury, I know who George Whitefield was (one of the earliest Methodist preachers) and, strangely, Richard Whatcoat (an obscure early Methodist superintendent and bishop). I was confirmed in the Methodist church, though I am not a Methodist now and have not been (nor even been a Christian) for many, many years. My point is, Methodism is a force that shaped my life in my formative years, and I feel some genuine sadness and loss at this turn of events.
The One Church proposal that was voted down — let each individual church handle the issue of same-sex marriage and gay clergy as the local congregation sees fit — is probably the best that the church could hope for and keep the church unified under the banner of Methodism, but that was far too liberal for the conservative churches, particularly of the Global South. There’s probably no agreement that would satisfy the liberal congregations who want to sanction same-sex marriage and the conservative congregations who still see same-sex relationships as an abomination. Even the One Church proposal I felt was little more than a band-aid, a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
I don’t see how the UMC doesn’t schism over this within the next few years. The issue can’t simply be kicked further down the road. At some point, liberal congregations will decide they won’t be dictated to any longer by the conservative ones. Methodism has split before — over the role of bishops, over slavery — and while these ruptures were largely healed and churches merged to create what we know know as the United Methodist Church, this may be a rupture too far to ever be bridged.
I wonder what John Wesley would think.