UMC ends ban on gay clergy and gay weddings, eliminates ‘incompatible’ language

Above, South Carolina delegates listen as General Conference leaders present a report. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News

Protection added for those who do not wish to perform same-sex weddings

By Jessica Brodie

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The close of General Conference ushered in a far more inclusive church than it had been at the start, as delegates removed language declaring homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

That was just one of the legislative items that passed during the historic and long-postponed General Conference, including striking down a ban against gay clergy and same-sex weddings and proclaiming support for people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Many advocates for this inclusion were celebrating by the end of the 10-day legislative gathering, calling it an opportunity for a new beginning for a church long-plagued by division over the issue.

For those not as enthusiastic about the changes, they celebrate the added protections the denomination passed for any clergy who do not wish to perform same-sex weddings—as well as the possibility that new regionalization measures will enable regions that disagree to maintain their bans on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination even as other regions do not.

Many of the LGBTQ+ inclusion petitions that passed did so relatively quietly, included as part of consent calendars. Consent calendar items are for legislation that passed overwhelmingly in committee that only requires a majority vote and does not have financial implications. It gathers these items in bulk for approval—or rejection—together. The body has the option to remove legislation from the consent calendar, and many of these items they simply chose not to remove.

Others passed on the floor with debate and some amendments. Among the first items, passed April 27, was revised language to the UMC’s Social Principles proclaiming support “for the equal rights, liberties, and protections of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” This means the UMC believes people should be treated with basic human dignity regardless of whether they are male, female, intersexual, transgender or nonbinary.

The Social Principles are not church law but rather represent the denomination’s public stands on important social issues. They are meant to be a guideline.

With the goal to develop a “more globally relevant, theologically founded and succinct” document, a team of 52 United Methodists from around the world drafted the revision, which also received feedback from thousands of United Methodists worldwide.

In addition to affirming the basic human rights of all people, the revised Social Principles passed on April 27 speak out against slavery, torture, genocide and war crimes; reaffirm opposition to the death penalty; deplore war and all other forms of violent conflict; affirm health care as a basic human right; and affirm the dignity, worth and rights of migrants, immigrants and refugees, including displaced and stateless people.

More items passed April 30 remove a ban on annual conferences and denominational agencies from giving United Methodist funds to any “gay caucus group” or using funds to “promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” Instead, the provision now says annual conferences and agencies should honor the denomination’s commitment not to reject lesbian or gay members.

They also eliminated the requirement that GCFA enforce the ban. Instead, the agency should ensure that church funds do not go to anything that rejects LGBTQ people or limits the response to the HIV epidemic.

They also strike the ban on boards of ordained ministry from considering candidates without evaluating whether they are “self-avowed practicing” gay people, and strike the requirement that bishops rule gay candidates ineligible; erase the mandatory penalty of at least a one-year suspension without pay for clergy found guilty of officiating at same-sex weddings or unions; allow gay clergy in good standing to be appointed across annual conference lines when their bishop can’t locate an appointment in their conference; and set a moratorium on judicial proceedings related to the denomination’s bans against gay clergy and same-sex weddings. The moratorium will last until General Conference alters it.

May 1 was a huge day for inclusion, as delegates saw the overwhelming passage of three consent calendars that contained a number of critical legislative items, including removing a ban on “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the UMC.

In addition to the ban on gay clergy, the consent calendar also included new provisions that clergy shall not be penalized for performing, or refraining from performing, a same-sex marriage service, and local churches cannot be required to hold or prohibit a same-sex marriage service on property owned by a local church.

During the break, hundreds of delegates and observers gathered in a circle as they hugged, cried and lifted their voices in hymns such as “Child of God” and “Draw the Circle Wide.”

On May 2, General Conference deleted language condemning homosexuality, voting 523-161 to support a revision of the Social Principles that deleted the phrase “the practice of homosexuality … is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Lengthy debate resulted in one modification that affirmed marriage as a sacred, lifelong covenant that brings two people of faith (adult man and adult woman of consenting age or two adult persons of consenting age) into a union of one another and into deeper relationship with God and the religious community.” The original petition left out the words in parentheses.

It was the final piece in a full-scale overhaul of the denomination’s Social Principles, an effort that began in 2012.

The revised Social Principles passed May 2 replace Paras. 161 and 162 in the Discipline. Those paragraphs deal with the church’s stances on the “Social Community.” Other parts of the newly adopted Social Principles include the rejection of child marriage, the stance against polygamy, the rejection of gambling, opposition to pornography and support for consent in sexual relationships, as well as statements on everything from suicide and divorce to remarriage.

“May this time we have all spent help us all move forward in making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world,” Bishop David Graves prayed after the vote Thursday.

Next, General Conference passed three petitions pertaining to gay weddings.

The body passed 474-206 legislation removing being gay or performing a gay wedding ceremony from the list of chargeable offenses for pastors. Specifically, the legislation struck “being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies” from the list of chargeable offenses.

This petition becomes effective at the close of the 2024 General Conference and applies retroactively to any pending complaints under the applicable subsections.

The body passed 447-233 legislation regarding pastoral conduct, removing a ban on conducting homosexual unions by ministers or in churches.

Committee Chair Lindsey Freeman said the committee concluded the decision to officiate a gay marriage resides with the authority of the clergyperson.

“It doesn’t mandate but rather it allows for discernment of the decision to perform weddings to the clergyperson,” Freeman said.

This petition also becomes effective at the close of the postponed 2020 General Conference.

And the body passed 479-203 adding language to the responsibilities and duties of elders and licensed pastors, noting that clergy cannot be compelled to perform or provide for, or be prohibited from performing, any marriage, union or blessing of any couple—including same-sex couples.

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