Updated 11:13 p.m. 4/26/19
The judiciary body of the United Methodist Church ruled Friday against LGBTQ clergy members and same-sex marriage in the church, upholding key parts of an earlier decision.
Under the ruling, pastors who officiate same-sex marriages can be suspended for a year without pay for the first offense and defrocked if it is repeated. It’s also possible that LGBTQ bishops and pastors could be removed from their posts.
The ruling comes after years of growing divisions between conservative and liberal congregations. The global church is growing rapidly outside the United States in countries with conservative social values.
Before Friday’s decision, some congregations indicated they might break away depending on how the Judicial Council ruled.
The Reverend Elizabeth McVicker leads two progressive congregations, First United Methodist Church and Centenary United Methodist Church, both in Salt Lake City. She said the decision is disappointing, but she still has hope.
“We’re surrounded by darkness and we need to keep in mind that we believe in the resurrection and that God is making a new thing,” said McVicker. “And that the good work that was started in the Methodist Church will continue whether or not the existing structure will.”
Reverend Russell Butler, who leads Christ United Methodist Church — also in Salt Lake City — said he believes the church is undergoing a transformation.
“We can move forward. This is a new possibility for us,” said Butler. “Something new is going to be created.”
The ruling also allows churches to break away from the denomination more easily, but they would have to pay a fee to retain property. There are 17 United Methodist churches in Utah and the majority of them are progressive.
The Executive Branch of the church, led by Ken Carter, President of the Council of Bishops, responded to the decision with a letter which said: “The Council of Bishops expresses its deep gratitude to the Judicial Council for its careful review of the actions of the 2019 General Conference. The Judicial Council’s decisions are clear and sound, and they give helpful guidance to the Church.”
Some parts of the so-called Traditional Plan were found to be unconstitutional, consistent with two previous Judicial Council decisions, and eight points were upheld as constitutional.
In 2016, more than 100 clergy — all members of the unofficial advocacy group called the UM Queer Clergy Caucus — signed an open letter to the LGBTQ people in the denomination.
This year, another letter titled “A Love Letter to LGBTQIA+ UMC Members and Friends,” was signed by clergy from the United States. Fourteen identified themselves only as the Hidden Faithful. That letter was addressed to “queer folks in the pews.”
“We are still in covenant with the denomination. That hasn’t changed The church may or may not reject us in the coming days, but we will never reject you, beloved children of God,” the letter said.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, has stated since 1972 that the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
It lists being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member, as well as conducting same-sex marriages, as chargeable offenses under church law. However, over the years, a number of church leaders have publically defied the church.
There are about 100 openly gay United Methodist pastors. The only openly gay bishop was appointed in Denver in 2016.
Today’s ruling may make it easier for the church to enforce its 1972 laws. Clergy identified as “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” could potentially lose their clergy credentials.
Before Friday’s decision, some United Methodist Church congregations indicated they may break away from the denomination if the “Traditional Plan” was upheld.
The United Methodist Church is one of the largest denominations, with over 12 million members worldwide and 7 million in the United States. The original decision was made during the church’s general conference in St. Louis earlier this year.