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United Methodists begin to reverse longstanding anti-LGBTQ policies

Charlotte, North Carolina, US
AP

United Methodist delegates began making historic changes in their policies on sexuality on Tuesday – voting without debate to reverse a series of anti-LGBTQ policies.

The delegates voted to delete mandatory penalties for conducting same-sex marriages and to remove their denomination’s bans on considering LGBTQ candidates for ministry and on funding for gay-friendly ministries.


Michigan Bishop David Bard presides at a session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church on Tuesday, 30th April, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina. PICTURE: AP Photo/Peter Smith.

The 667-54 vote, coming during their legislative General Conference, removes some of the scaffolding around the United Methodist Church’s longstanding bans on LGBTQ-affirming policies regarding ordination, marriage and funding.

Still to come later this week are votes on the core of the bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage in church law and policy, which may draw more debate. However, the large majority achieved by Tuesday’s votes indicate the tenor of the General Conference. The consensus was so overwhelming that these items were rolled into the legislative “consent calendar,” normally reserved for non-controversial measures.

The actions follow a historic schism in what was long the third-largest denomination in the United States. About one-quarter of US congregations left between 2019 and 2023, mostly conservative churches dismayed that the denomination wasn’t enforcing its longstanding LGBTQ bans. With the absence of many conservative delegates, who had been in the solid majority in previous general conferences and had steadily reinforced such bans over the decades, progressive delegates are moving quickly to reverse such policies.

Such actions could also prompt departures of some international churches, particularly in Africa, where more conservative sexual values prevail and where same-sex activity is criminalised in some countries.



United Methodist Church law still bans the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” into ministry – a decades-old rule that will come up for a vote later this week.

However, on Tuesday, the General Conference voted to remove a related ban – on church officials considering someone for ordination who fits that category. It removed bans on bishops ordaining LGBTQ people as clergy or consecrating them as bishops.

It also removed mandatory penalties – imposed by a 2019 General Conference – on clergy who conduct ceremonies celebrating same-sex weddings or unions.

And it imposed a moratorium on any church judicial processes seeking to discipline any clergy for violating LGBTQ-related rules.

In addition, the General Conference took actions toward being openly LGBTQ-affirming.

It repealed a longstanding ban on any United Methodist entity using funds “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” That previous ban also forbade the funding of any effort to “reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends” and expressly supported the funding of responses to the anti-HIV epidemic. However, the mixed wording of the old rule has been replaced with a ban on funding any effort to “reject any LGBTQIA+ person or openly discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people.”


United Methodist delegates listen to a debate during their General Conference meeting on Tuesday, 30th April, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina, US. PICTURE: AP Photo/Peter Smith.

“It’s a very liberating day for United Methodists who are actively involved with LGBTQ people,” said Rev David Meredith, board chair for the Reconciling Ministries Network, a group that has long advocated for LGBTQ inclusion in the church.

Compared with past, contentious general conferences, this one is “much more upbeat,” added Jan Lawrence, executive director of the network. “Yes, we’re going to have things we disagree on. But the vitriol that we saw in 2019, that is not evident at all.”

Other rule changes called for considering of LGBTQ people along with other demographic categories for appointments in an effort to have diversity on various church boards and entities.

The General Conference is the UMC’s first legislative gathering since 2019, one that features its most progressive slate of delegates in recent memory following the departure of more than 7,600 mostly conservative congregations in the United States because it essentially stopped enforcing its bans on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination.


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Those departures came during a window between 2019 and 2023 allowing US congregations to leave with their properties, held in trust for the denomination, under friendlier than normal terms. Conservatives are advocating that such terms be extended for international and US churches that don’t agree with the General Conference’s actions.

“We get it, the United Methodist Church wants to be done with disaffiliation,” said Rev Rob Renfroe, president of the conservative advocacy group Good News. “They want to step into this new day. We do not want to keep them from that. But how can disaffiliation be over when it never began for the majority of United Methodists?”

Still to come this week are final votes on whether to remove the bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage, and whether to whether to replace a longstanding document that had called the “practice of homosexuality…incompatible with Christian teaching.”

All of those proposals had overwhelming support in committee votes last week.

The changes would be historic in a denomination that has debated LGBTQ issues for more than half a century at its General Conferences, which typically meet every four years.

Last week, the conference endorsed a regionalisation plan that essentially would allow the churches of the United States the same autonomy as other regions of the global church. That change – which still requires local ratification – could create a scenario where LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage are allowed in the United States but not in other regions. Delegates on Tuesday approved a related measure related to regionalisation.

The conference last week also approved the departure of a small group of conservative churches in the former Soviet Union.

The denomination had until recently been the third largest in the United States, present in almost every county. But its 5.4 million US membership in 2022 is expected to drop once the 2023 departures are factored in.

The denomination also counts 4.6 million members in other countries, mainly in Africa, though earlier estimates have been higher.

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