In the novel Angel, minister Paul Tobit is forced to confront his church doctrine and his role in the community when he realizes he is falling in love with a young man. While I purposely do not identify Paul’s denomination, the official position of the fictional church hierarchy, including some of its language, was mostly based on the United Methodist Church. (I wrote an article about this process back in March.) The UMC’s official policy is not to exclude LGBT people from worship, but not to allow homosexuals in the ministry or to perform gay weddings because it is, in the words of the Book of Discipline, “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
So I have followed the continued conflicts over this issue within the UMC with some interest. This week Retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert performed a same sex wedding at his church in Alabama.
“We as the church have the privilege of inviting people to come to God’s table, but we do not say which ones can and which ones can’t,” Bishop Talbert told AL.com. “They are all created in the image of God. They all have a place at God’s table. They should not be excluded.”
AL.com had an in-depth article by Greg Garrison about whether these types of actions will change the UMC. I was interested to learn more about church politics from this article. It turns out the international reach of the UMC may make it slower than other denominations to embrace change on this issue. UMC membership in the U.S. has been on the decline, but world wide, especially in Africa it has grown. So members from Africa have an increasingly strong voice in General Conference debates. Even if the voices in favor of social change here in America get louder, they increasingly have to shout to be heard over their international peers. The African delegation alone, the article says, will have about 40 percent of the delegates at the next UMC General Conference. This makes the denomination that I chose as most representative fairly unique.
Without the church’s growing global membership, the United Methodists would Very likely have taken a turn towards acceptance of gay marriage, like several other mainline Protestant denominations, Tooley said. The United Methodists are shrinking in America, but growing elsewhere, with 12 million members worldwide…
While the number of United Methodists in Africa grows by about 250,000 members a year, the number of U.S. United Methodists shrinks every year, by more than 50,000.
At the 2012 General Conference there were 300 delegates from Africa. The General Conference usually has about 850 voting delegates, split between lay members and clergy, who decide church policy. Representation from outside the United States will likely make up half the delegates in 2016.
So while gay rights activists and lobbying groups have achieved major successes in the Episcopal Church, the UCC, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA), it’s not likely to happen in the United Methodist Church…
In my Facebook feed today was a post from Faithful America, a group dedicated to “putting faith into action for social justice.” They have started a petition asking the UMC not to prosecute ministers who perform same sex weddings. It looks as though they have gathered about 15,000 signatures at the time of this writing. It will be interesting to see how this schism in the UMC plays out in the coming years.