The Rev. David Meredith, left, and the Rev. Austin Adkinson...

The Rev. David Meredith, left, and the Rev. Austin Adkinson sing during a gathering of LGBTQ people and allies outside the Charlotte Convention Center, in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, May 2, 2024. They were celebrating after the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to remove the denomination's 52-year-old social teaching that deemed homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." Credit: AP/Peter Smith

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — United Methodist delegates on Thursday removed a 52-year-old declaration from their official social teachings that deemed “the practice of homosexuality ... incompatible with Christian teaching” — part of a wider series of historic reversals of the denomination’s longstanding disapproval of LGBTQ activity.

The historic vote came as delegates also approved a new definition of marriage as a covenant between “two people of faith” while recognizing the couple may or may not involve a man and a woman. That replaces an exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage and followed a debate that exposed tensions between some U.S. and international delegates.

The 523-161 vote to approve a section of the church's Revised Social Principles took place at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in the penultimate day of their 11-day legislative gathering in Charlotte.

It came a day after the General Conference removed its longstanding ban on "self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained or appointed as ministers. Step by step, delegates have been removing anti-LGBTQ language throughout their official documents.

But the marriage definition was approved only after debate and a compromise amendment — one of the few instances of open debate during this otherwise overwhelmingly progressive conference.

“God designed marriage to be between a man and a woman,” said Nimia Peralta from the Northwest Philippines. While the conference earlier approved a regionalization plan enabling different parts of the global church to adapt rules to their local contexts, “God’s word can never be regionalized,” she said.

But the Rev. James Howell of Western North Carolina applauded the new language.

Angie Cox, left, and Joelle Henneman hug after an approval...

Angie Cox, left, and Joelle Henneman hug after an approval vote at the United Methodist Church General Conference Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C. United Methodist delegates repealed their church’s longstanding ban on LGBTQ clergy with no debate on Wednesday, removing a rule forbidding “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained or appointed as ministers. Credit: AP/Chris Carlson

“Cynics and young adults will not listen to us talk about Jesus if we say we do not condone people they love and care about,” Howell said. “Friends, it’s time.”

The Rev. Kalaba Chali, based in Kansas, said the principles are general enough without forcing people in different cultural contexts “to do things the same way.”

The approval came only after an amendment offered by lay delegate Molly Mwayera of East Zimbabwe, who noted that many African countries do not allow for same-sex marriage. After extended wordsmithing, the assembly settled on an amendment with a parenthetical clause that affirmed marriage as a sacred covenant bringing “two people of faith (adult man and woman of consenting age or two adult persons of consenting age) into union."

It’s the UMC’s first legislative gathering since 2019, one that features its most progressive slate of delegates in memory due to the departure of many conservatives from the denomination. More than 7,600 mostly conservative congregations in the United States — one quarter of the denomination's American total — disaffiliated because the UMC essentially stopped enforcing its bans on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination.

David Meredith, middle, hugs fellow observers after an approval vote...

David Meredith, middle, hugs fellow observers after an approval vote at the United Methodist Church General Conference Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C. United Methodist delegates repealed their church’s longstanding ban on LGBTQ clergy with no debate on Wednesday, removing a rule forbidding “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained or appointed as ministers. Credit: AP/Chris Carlson

A temporary window enabled American churches to leave with their properties, normally held by the denomination, under more favorable than normal terms. While the conference voted against extending that window to international churches, the conference votes could still prompt departures of some international churches through different means — particularly in Africa, where conservative sexual values prevail and where same-sex activity is criminalized in some countries.

After the vote, contrasting gatherings were held nearby outside the Charlotte Convention Center — a celebratory gathering of LGBTQ people and their allies at one end of a long courtyard, a defiant gathering of prayer and song by dozens of African delegates who opposed the changes.

“We are deeply devastated now to be part of a denomination that will contradict the Bible ’s teaching on marriage and sexual morality,” said the Rev. Jerry Kulah, of the conservative advocacy group Africa Initiative. He said African conferences will have to decide their future, but he contended the denomination was “willing to lose Africans and Africa to fulfill this progressive agenda.”

Some African delegates have spoken in support of the regionalization proposal, which can allow church regions to maintain their bans on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination even as American churches go without them.

The progressive momentum of the General Conference was evident from the vote Thursday. They voted on the last of a series of approvals of a wholesale rewrite of the denomination’s Social Principles — a non-binding but influential compendium of the denomination’s social stances on everything from war and peace to the environment and family relations.

The new version no longer includes the clause: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching." It had also urged members not to condemn gays and lesbians.

The old version said sexual relations are "affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage."

The new version omits this phrase and describes “human sexuality as a sacred gift” and a “healthy and natural part of life that is expressed in wonderfully diverse ways.” It doesn't say anything about restricting sexual activity to marriage. It does say people have the right to consent to sex and condemns sexual harassment and exploitation and opposes pornography as “destructive.”

The new version calls for human rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and other racial, ethnic and gender categories.

Thursday’s change is particularly significant because the “incompatible” clause dates back to the beginning of the 52-year-old debate on LGBTQ issues within one of the nation’s largest Protestant denominations. The phrasing was adopted on the floor of the 1972 General Conference via an amendment proposed by a delegate, added to the original draft statement that had said “persons of homosexual orientation are persons of sacred worth.”

The denomination had been revising and adding to the Social Principles for decades; this amounts to the first wholesale rewrite in many years. Other revisions were approved earlier this week.

The drafters chose general language because the denomination spans countries and cultures, said John Hill, interim general secretary at the Board of Church and Society, at a news conference earlier this week.

"Our hope was that statements that could speak theologically to these matters, but not to any specific context, could then be applied across the context of the church,” he said

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