PORTLAND, Ore. (Christian Examiner) – If Methodists plan on addressing all of the proposed changes related to human sexuality in church doctrine and discipline when they meet for their once-every-four-years general conference May 10-20, it may be the only subject the bishops and laity gathered in Portland have time to debate.
Already, more than 100 proposed legislative changes on human sexuality have been registered with the conference – almost all dealing with the church's acceptance (or lack thereof) of homosexual ministers and same-sex marriage. If passed, those changes would make their way into the church's Book of Discipline.
One, offering a "third way" on homosexuality, proposes dropping a reference to sexual intimacy being confined to "the covenant of monogamous heterosexual marriage" in favor of one reading that sex should be a part of "monogamous marriage" – a rendering that would open the door to same-sex marriage.
Another more radical proposal would result in the establishment of a church commission to help the denomination divide into three separate bodies with different views on same-sex marriage. One of the proposed autonomous divisions would "broaden the definition of marriage and remove the prohibitions on same-sex weddings and the ordination of persons engaging in same-sex relations, promoting the affirmation and equal regard for same-sex relationships."
The numerous proposed changes intended to soften the church's stance on homosexual ordination, same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general is not without opposition. Another legislative proposal from conservatives seeks to retain the primacy of Scripture in the denomination.
"Therefore, any petition attempting to change our present stance on sexuality, homosexuality, or marriage is to be tabled indefinitely and the Council of Bishops is to determine the boundaries for all United Methodists to function accordingly," the proposed legislation reads.
LGBT proponents are geared up for their fight as never before, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court created the right of same-sex marriage in June 2015. In fact, one minister is demonstrated his open defiance to the church's ban on same-sex marriage by getting married before the conference to provoke that fight.
The marriage between Pastor David Meredith and his longtime homosexual partner Jim Schlachter, might "inspire empathy among the delegates," Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, a columnist for the leftist Center for American Progress and a theology professor at Chicago Theological Seminary, said.
"This is one of the leaders of the church. This is someone they have ordained, and that is important to other church leaders," Thistlewaite, who is a long-time advocate of LGBT inclusion, said.
Currently, the denomination prohibits the ordination of openly homosexual ministers, refuses participation in the marriage of same-sex couples, and refuses to expend any funds on organizations that affirm or encourage the LGBT lifestyle. In held the line on biblical marriage in 2008 and 2012, but is starting to see a serious rebellion in its ranks.
On May 5, the Pacific Northwest Conference's board of ordained ministry, which oversees the appointment and placement of ministers in churches there, said in a unanimous statement that "people of all sexual orientations and gender identities" – heterosexuals, homosexuals, and transgenders – can demonstrate "fitness, readiness, and effectiveness in ministry."
The statement from the Pacific Northwest Conference claimed it holds its candidates for the clergy to the "highest standards of faithful and holy living," but it then offers the contradictory affirmation of "all sexual orientations and gender identities."
"We will continue to give all candidates equal consideration, as we believe it is the most faithful way to do our work," the statement said.
"At this critical time in the history of The United Methodist Church, we believe it is important to state explicitly how we have been operating implicitly. We stand in solidarity with and fully support all of our colleagues and candidates in ministry who endeavor to transform our world through God's grace."
Boards in Baltimore-Washington and New York have also already said they no longer plan to inquire about a minister's sexual orientation before ordination. The decision was reached in New York after 15 candidates for ordination "came out" as gay, and in Baltimore a church announced it had appointed as a provisional deacon a married lesbian.
If American Methodists think the acceptance of homosexuality in the body is a foregone conclusion, they may be shocked when the move is blocked by the much more conservative bishops and laity from the Third World and global South.
Of the 864 delegates that will be at the general conference, 42 percent will be from Africa, Europe and the Philippines. Those from Europe, generally more liberal and already conditioned to accept same-sex marriage because of government actions in Britain and elsewhere, likely will side with groups like the Pacific Northwest Conference.
But those from the East and Africa will not. In September 2015, African bishops expressed shock at the "rapid drift" of the denomination from the "Holy call to a warm embrace of practices that have become sources of conflict that now threatens to rip the Church apart and distract her from the mission of leading persons to faith and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
"We are deeply saddened that the Holy Bible, our primary authority for faith and the practice of Christian living, and our Book of Discipline are being grossly ignored by some members and leaders of our Church in favor of social and cultural practices that have no scriptural basis for acceptance in Christian worship and conduct. Yet they continue to attempt to persuade members of the Church to incorporate these practices as an accepted code of conduct within global United Methodism," the African bishops said in their statement.
African leaders also called on all United Methodists to reaffirm Scripture as the only rule for faith and practice and to affirm that sexual relations should occur only within a "faithful monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and not within same-sex unions or polygamy."
In March, a group calling itself Love Your Neighbor, a coalition of 13 United Methodist caucuses, responded to the African bishops. The group, which calls itself "affirming" of LGBTs and same-sex marriage, said in a statement that "peace is not going to come through ignoring the demands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians for full inclusion in the church."
The group's statement will most certainly be rejected by the African bishops because it denies Scripture alone is sufficient for doctrine on issues related to human sexuality.
"To work toward a goal of honest holy conferencing and not forced conformity, we insist that the final word has not been spoken about the teachings of Scripture on human sexuality. A whole literature exists that takes the Scriptures seriously, sets them into their appropriate historical context, and seeks to draw guidance for our current understanding of sex and sexuality," the statement said.
"This literature belies the claim that Scripture issues a clear and unequivocal denunciation of sexual practices and institutions that do not fit the norm of marriage between one man and one woman. We consequently contend that The Book of Discipline's claim that 'sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant bond of a faithful, monogamous, heterosexual marriage' creates a moral dilemma in United Methodism. A dilemma, because faithful United Methodists believe this pronouncement and subsequent church policies and practices to be unjust."
In 1972, the General Conference rejected homosexuality as contradictory to the Christian life and placed a prohibition on the practice and the ordination of homosexual ministers in the Book of Discipline. Four years later, homosexual acitivists attempted to overturn the ban, ironically in Portland – the site of this year's meeting.