When my younger sister returned to church after decades of absence, she found a United Methodist congregation she liked and plunged into activities there but soon asked in dismay, “Why are we still fighting about sex?”
In the 1960s and '70s, we fought about whether a divorced parson could be a pastor. In the 1980s, we battled over abortion. For more than 30 years, we have argued about homosexuality.
A special session last February of the General Conference, our denomination’s legislative body, was supposed to settle the issues but only deepened our division: it enacted new penalties for performing gay weddings or coming out of the closet, most of them overturned by the Judicial Council, our supreme court.
Other Protestant denominations have accepted gay marriage and gay clergy. Why is this so difficult for us?
- United Methodists are slightly more conservative than Presbyterians, Lutherans, and other mainline Protestants.
- In other denominations, local congregations choose pastors, so nobody is forced to accept either a homosexual or homophobic parson. Our bishops appoint clergy to local parishes.
- Local UMs hold property in trust for the wider church: if a congregation leaves the denomination, its property usually reverts to the regional body, the Annual Conference.
- We are an international denomination: two-thirds of U.S. and European delegates voted for greater acceptance of LGBTQ folks; those from Africa, Russia and the Philippines voted for harsher penalties. And churches in Africa and the Philippines can set local standards for ordination, but those in the United States cannot do the same.
On Jan. 3, 16 bishops and other leaders, including New York Bishop Thomas Bickerton, proposed an amicable divorce. With the help of famed mediator Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, this group of conservatives, moderates, and progressives offered a plan permitting traditionalists to leave gracefully and take property with them to form a new Methodist denomination. When a marriage cannot be saved, a mediated divorce is almost always better than a nasty battle in court.
Methodist founder John Wesley was hardly a poster boy for heterosexuality. He pursued an inappropriate relationship with a parishioner and excommunicated her when she rebuffed him. He got engaged to a woman who later jilted him, convinced he did not want her. He had a terrible marriage with another woman and refused to attend her funeral. Still, Wesley supported female preachers 250 years ago, long before other religious leaders.
Perhaps there is hope for the rest of us.
The Rev. Thomas W. Goodhue is a United Methodist clergyman who has served churches in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and led the Long Island Council of Churches.