by Chris Ritter
Note: Some have asked for this updated version of a previously-published history of the United Methodist human sexuality debate. I am happy to offer this again as a primer on the long battle that led to the separation Methodism is currently experiencing.
Born in 1968, our fledging denomination considered its first articulation of Social Principles at the 1972 General Conference in Atlanta. Language was proposed by the high-profile study commission naming homosexuals as people of sacred worth, welcome in the fellowship of the church, and persons whose rights should be protected. An issue quickly arose, however, about what the statement didn’t say. The lack of moral guidance about sexual activity between two people of the same gender was difficult to miss. The larger statement on human sexuality did affirm, after all, that sex between a man and a woman was only appropriate within the bond of marriage. What about sex between people of the same gender? The influence of the Sexual Revolution were already being witnessed in our church institutions. Some suspected that the statement was intentionally skirting an obvious question.
Charged with reviewing the commission’s recommendations, The Christian Social Concerns Legislative Committee invited testimony from Rev. Gene Leggett, an openly gay clergy who had earlier been removed from ministry in Texas. Leggett suggested additional language about homosexuals needing “the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment.” This language was accepted by the committee. Attempts to reference the scriptural witness about homosexuality were, however, rebuffed.
Once on the plenary floor, the paragraph on human sexuality proved highly contentious. After two hours of debate, an amendment was suggested by attorney Don Hand from Southwest Texas. The committee’s language was retained but a period was changed to a comma and the following words were added: “, though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” With this amendment, our statement on human sexuality was approved by a clear majority on April 26, 1972. But, as we know, this was only the beginning.
The balance of the 1970’s witnessed a tug of war between our institutions and the voice of General Conference which resulted in a disciplinary ban on church funds going to “gay caucus groups” or being used to “promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” When new language came to General Conference in 1980 about qualifications for ordained ministry, homosexual relationships were not listed along with marital infidelity as a disqualification for clergy candidates. This was a noticeable as cases related to homosexuality and the clergy were much in church news. When the omission was questioned from the floor, delegates were assured such language was pointless because of our statements elsewhere that “scripture is the primary source” and candidates “are expected to make a complete dedication of themselves to the highest ideals of the Christian life.” One only needed to reference what the Social Principles had to say about marriage and human sexuality. Specific prohibitions were to be avoided, it was said, because they would become endless. “In our covenant, we are called to trust one another.” (Journal of the 1980 General Conference, p. 1091) We came out of General Conference 1980 with this good faith approach.
The “trust one another” approach lasted all of 22 months. At the 1982 session of the Rocky Mountain Conference, someone asked the bishop if it was proper that one of the probationary candidates for ministry was openly gay. In spite of the fact that the moral vision of the church related to human sexuality was not difficult to discern, the bishop ruled that there was no specific language in the Book of Discipline to disqualify a candidate on this basis. The Judicial Council (Decision 513) upheld the bishop, saying that evaluation of candidates is carried out by the Board of Ordained Ministry based on the specific requirements of the Discipline, and “These requirements do not refer to sexual orientation.”
In response to the 1982 Judicial Council decision, nearly a thousand petitions came to General Conference 1984 requesting that the specific language about homosexuality be added to our ministry standards. Thirty of these came endorsed by annual conferences. When the legislative committee failed to recommend the strengthening of the language, a minority report came to the floor. It proposed additions to our chargeable offenses that stated “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” were not to be received as candidates for ministry or ordained.
The language was carefully measured. “Self-avowed” was intended to avoid witch-hunts the likes of which that Jerry Falwell was making infamous. “Practicing” was meant to preclude prejudice in the ordination process against sexual orientation alone. The prohibition was to be about sexual practice (something within ones control) and not about sexual preference (something outside ones control). The minority report was defeated initially but passed during reconsideration.
Discussions about the 1980’s must also reference the fear and ignorance around the AIDS crisis. Little did our denomination know at the time that the President of the Council of Bishops in 1982 was living a very promiscuous life with other men in violation of his marriage vows and sometimes with pastors under his episcopal supervision. Bishop Finis Alonzo Crutchfield died of AIDS in 1987 having maintained from the time of his diagnosis that he contracted HIV through casual contact during routine pastoral visitation in hospitals. Although Crutchfield had offered some notable support to the gay community during his episcopal ministry, his lie contributed to the environment of fear in the church. Gene Leggett, mentioned above as adding language to our human sexuality statement, also tragically died from AIDS after years of showing up at ordination services to kneel, gagged with a handkerchief, in protest of his expulsion.
Fast forward to 1993. The Oregon-Idaho A.C. Clergy Session brought a lesbian probationer off leave of absence after she landed there following a failed attempt by the cabinet to appoint her to a church. When the matter came before the Judicial Council, they ruled that definitions must be provided of “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” to see if it conflicted with the protections around “status” in our constitution. General Conference 1996 provided this definition: “‘Self-avowed practicing homosexual’ is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee on ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual.” Written by a team of lawyers, this was found not to conflict with the constitutional protection of “status.”
In 1997 a case against Rev. Jimmy Creech for officiating at a same sex wedding was dismissed because it was argued the Social Principles forbidding such ceremonies did not have the force of law. This went to the Judicial Council in 1998 and they confirmed that General Conference intended the language to be binding. GC2000 underscored this point by repeating the prohibition in another area of the Discipline. (Creech was later defrocked for officiating another same sex wedding). When, in 2002, an annual conference funded a ministry promoting the acceptance of homosexual practice, GC2004 extended to the annual conferences the earlier prohibition against funding such causes. In 2004, Karen Damman was found “not guilty” because of an exotic interpretation of the word “declare” and a counsel for the church that actually wanted to lose his case (according to his statement following the trial). The language that allowed the acquittal was altered by General Conference 2004 in response.
Each quadrennium between general conferences has witnessed fresh attempts to circumvent disciplinary language. Conflict reached a new level with the U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell Decision legalizing same sex marriage throughout the United States. Even prior to this, two whole jurisdictional conferences had voted to act as if the Discipline doesn’t say what it says about sex. All the while the make-up of General Conference, the only body authorized to speak for the UMC, was becoming more traditional due to decline in the U.S. and rapid growth in places like Africa. Nonetheless, UMC progressives came to General Conference 2016 in Portland with high hopes. Several high-profile same-sex weddings were scheduled in the days leading up to General Conference. Over 100 clergy “came out of the closet” in a public statement.
I had a front row seat for General Conference 2016 and wrote about it here. The various petitions to be considered included proposals to liberalize church teachings on human sexuality, proposals to heighten accountability to church teachings, and proposals to restructure the church in ways aimed to end the fighting. After a week of work in legislative committees, it was clear the General Conference was moving toward enforcement. Rumors of a back-room deal to divide the church floated in the conference halls. One moderate clergy took the floor and asked the bishops to show-some-leadership-for-goodness-sake and bring back a proposal. This was widely supported and the bishops marched away into conclave. The plan they brought back was to form a commission. This proposal by the bishops was initially defeated, but narrowly passed when presented a different way.
Just after GC2016, the Western Jurisdiction elected a partnered lesbian, Karen Oliveto, as a bishop of the church. [A later Judicial Council ruling that her status be reviewed in accordance with church teaching was ignored by her Western Jurisdiction colleagues]. Traditionalists organized themselves into a more unified structure called the Wesleyan Covenant Association under the presidency of Keith Boyette. So “The Commission on a Way Forward” convened in late 2016 amidst even greater tension. The thirty-two members included eight bishops, thirteen other clergy, and eleven lay members. Three sketches emerged as possible futures for the UMC. The church could (1) uphold current teachings with greater force, (2) generally loosen standards related to human sexuality, or (3) restructure into conservative and progressive connectional conferences under the same denominational umbrella. The Commission developed the last two possibilities into full legislative proposals, the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan. The Council of Bishops endorsed the One Church Plan. The Traditional Plan was initially left in sketch form by the Commission but strong objections by African bishops caused the Council of Bishops to vote its full development and inclusion as an addendum to the Way Forward report. A special session on General Conference was called in February 2019 in St. Louis to act upon the report.
The One Church Plan, with its endorsements by a majority of the Commission and Council of Bishops, was considered by many to be a slam dunk. But when General Conference 2019 ranked its legislative priorities, the Traditional Plan was favored above the One Church Plan. A key piece of the Traditional Plan allowing progressive annual conferences and local churches to freely exit, however, failed to make it to the floor for approval. The enforcement and accountability pieces of the Traditional Plan was approved by a 54% margin. But the heated demonstrations that sought to obstruct the work of General Conference spilled out into the annual conferences. Some long-standing partnerships with African conferences were severed because of African support for the Traditional Plan. Progressives in the U.S. organized to elect more progressive delegates to General Conference 2020.
With ample evidence that the U.S. jurisdictions of the UMC were beyond reconciliation to church polity, an informal group of centrists, progressives and traditionalists met in Indianapolis to negotiate a separation plan that called upon traditionalists to leave the UMC in exchange for free exit with properties. This “Indy Plan” was soon eclipsed by a group convened by Bishop Yambasu of Sierra Leone that met with famed negotiator Kenneth Feinberg. This group included top bishops and caucus leaders and released “A Protocol for Grace and Reconciliation though Separation” in December 2019. The legislation empowered the formation of one of more new traditionalist denominations blessed by the UMC. Progressives and centrists would comprise a continuing UMC. This separation plan was to come before the regular quadrennial session of General Conference in May 2020.
Then a global pandemic struck. General Conference was postponed until 2021 and later 2022. Traditionalists continued work on the shape of their new denomination behind the scenes. They included a whole raft of reform measures that they agreed had long been needed in Methodism: Term limits for bishops, release of the trust clause, more local church autonomy, elimination of guaranteed appointments for clergy, reduction of bureaucracy, and stream-lining of general agencies. The name and polity of the “Global Methodist Church” was announced in March 2021 as the church set to launch following approval of the Protocol. Eight bishops helped plan the new denomination. Annual conferences in the U.S., Eastern Europe, and Africa expressed their intention to join the new church when it formed. Several dozen congregations began leaving the UMC to assume independent status or join a different denomination. The Connectional Table and Council of Bishops produced statements describing their vision of the big-tent “continuing UMC.”
On March 3, 2022, The Commission on General Conference announced they would again postpone General Conference, this time until 2024. This news was anticipated by traditionalists who viewed it as further obstruction by U.S. institutional forces seeking confound the formation of the new denomination. Nonetheless, the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church announced a May 1, 2022 launch. The GMC would start small and grow over time in waves as traditional congregations could negotiate themselves free of the UMC. Several negotiators of the Separation Protocol withdrew their support and the future of that legislation is in grave doubt.
It seems evident that the human sexuality debate is a mere shibboleth for the larger divide in United Methodism between traditional and progressive understandings of the Christian faith. As we mark a dark 50-year anniversary, we have arrived at the threshold of a comprehensive cleavage of these two forces. What remains is the likelihood of significant residual conflicts over money and property.