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47-year-long debate grinds on

Bishops praying at General Conference 2019 before the debate begins

Issues before the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis have a history dating back to the 1972 General Conference in Atlanta. Click here for an interactive timeline.


UM News Analysis

Will the 2020 United Methodist General Conference bring everyone back to the table or will delegates go off in their own corners to divide the church?

At issue is the denomination’s now 47-year-long debate about the role of LGBTQ people in church leadership.

The phrase that has brought the church to the brink of breaking up was introduced into church law in 1972 when the denomination’s top lawmaking body declared the practice of homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Every General Conference since that 1972 gathering has debated that phrase. But at the end of the day, the language has stayed in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book. Also, church law has stated no “self-avowed practicing” gay person may be ordained, no same-sex marriage ceremonies can be held in a United Methodist church, and no United Methodist clergy can officiate at a same-sex union.

However, the church policy book states LGBTQ people are welcome in all United Methodist churches and are of “sacred worth.”

The debate reached a crescendo in 2016 and the whole issue was put on pause. The Council of Bishops was asked to appoint a commission to come up with a way forward to present at a special called General Conference.

In the meantime, the Western Jurisdiction elected the Rev. Karen Oliveto as the denomination’s first openly gay bishop. She was consecrated on July 16, 2016. The married lesbian has been leading the Mountain Sky Area since her election, even though The United Methodist Church’s top court ruled consecrating a gay bishop violates church law

That 2017 ruling, which did not specifically name Oliveto, said a gay bishop who had been consecrated remained in good standing until an administrative review process was complete.   

Three months after the end of GC2016, the bishops announced a 32-member Commission on the Way Forward charged with completely examining every paragraph in the Book of Discipline related to human sexuality. A special called General Conference was set for February 2019. Based on the commission’s work, the Council of Bishops recommended a plan that would have left questions of same-sex weddings up to individual clergy and congregations — and questions of gay ordination up to individual conferences.

The 2019 General Conference ended with a vote to reinforce the current language in the Book of Discipline concerning homosexuality, strengthened enforcement for violations and provided a process for those who cannot live with the Discipline to leave. 

But that is not the end of the story. Rolling into the 2020 General Conference, rebellion has broken out and plans to split the church have been floated.

Most recently, the Filipino College of Bishops “intensely” opposed the dissolution of The United Methodist Church and called for regional autonomy to deal with divisive issues like homosexuality.

The African College of Bishops also stated they oppose a split in the denomination but reiterated their stance that homosexuality is incompatible with the teachings of Scripture.

Since the February 23-26 special session in St. Louis, giving to general church ministries has dropped

An investigation into voting at the February 2019 General Conference found evidence of four ineligible people casting votes using the credentials of delegates who were not present. Because of that investigation, a key vote on how congregations can leave the denomination was nullified.

However, seven Mississippi churches already have left the denomination using that legislation’s provisions.

Several of the denomination’s U.S. annual conferences meeting this summer looked at plans for a new Methodism centered around how to divide The United Methodist Church.

More than 20 of the regional gatherings rejected the Traditional Plan approved by the 2019 General Conference and voted to remove the phrase that the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching” from the denomination’s policy book. The 54 U.S. regional conferences met in May and June.

Other conferences had passionate discussions about the future of The United Methodist Church but stood by the action of the 2019 General Conference.

At least nine U.S. conferences commissioned or ordained openly LGBTQ individuals including Baltimore-WashingtonMichiganNorth TexasNew YorkNorthern IllinoisOregon-IdahoDesert SouthwestMountain Sky, and California-Nevada.

U.S. conferences also elected a significantly different slate of delegates to make the big decisions in 2020.

The pain over the deep divide that has occurred among United Methodists since February’s General Conference has permeated all parts of the denomination, raising questions about the impact on its mission projects and goals.

Roland Fernandes, in his general treasurer’s report for United Methodist Global Ministries, pointed out that most Advance projects — mission work that relies on voluntary contributions — had a significant decline in income in the first quarter of this year.

Overall, Advance giving to the United Methodist Committee on Relief dropped by more than $24 million from $58.4 million in 2017 to $34 million in 2018. But the higher funding in 2017 reflected donations aimed at responding to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

The 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis will have 862 delegates overall, equally split between clergy and laity. 

Of the 2020 delegates, 55.9% will be from the U.S., 32% from Africa, 6% from the Philippines, 4.6% from Europe and the remainder from concordat churches that have close ties to The United Methodist Church. Compared to the 2019 session, the U.S. will have fewer delegates overall while African delegations gain 18 and the Philippines gain 2. 

Delegates to General Conference make decisions that affect the entire denomination, and they vote by secret ballot as moved by the Holy Spirit.

This principle is underscored in the words of the denomination’s top court, Judicial Council.

“Delegates to General Conference, just as members of an Annual Conference, are bound to do as their conscience dictates what is good for the Church of Jesus Christ, The United Methodist Church, in particular, and that only.”

~ Information for this story was compiled by Kathy L. Gilbert from reports by UM News reporters Linda Bloom, Eveline Chikwanah, Heather Hahn, Sam Hodges, Gladys Mangiduyos and Jim Patterson.

Last Updated on November 1, 2023

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