The increasing division in the United Methodist Church (UMC) over gay rights and marriage may be the harbinger of a major schism in the church body, writes Amy Frykholm in the Christian Century magazine (April 16).
Observers, including RW, have viewed the United Methodists as an exception to the trend of mainline Protestant denominations liberalizing their policies on ordination of gays and lesbians and the approval of same-sex unions and marriages. This is mainly because the church body has an international membership with conservative memberships that could block such changes. But Frykholm reports that a growing number of UMC clergy are performing same-sex wedding ceremonies in open defiance of church rules prohibiting such practices, prompting a series of church trials “which has bitterly divided the church.” But so far, actual cases of clergy discipline over the issue have been few.
Some bishops have been conducting gay marriages while others have declined to prosecute clergy even when there have been charges brought up against them; only conservative bishops have urged the denomination to hold such trials. Rules against the ordination of practicing homosexuals and gay unions were reinforced by the General Conference of the church in 2004 by making violations a chargeable offense. Since then, the defacto rule has been “don’t ask, don’t tell,” with only the public nature of same-sex unions making the issue visible.
The gay advocacy group, Reconciling Ministries Network, has grown in number and commitment, with some clergy members performing same-sex unions as a way of challenging the system. If there is a schism emerging, it will be more complicated than the Episcopal, Lutheran, or Presbyterian cases. Some liberals are pressing for the denomination to give its U.S. jurisdictions more autonomy—a measure that has exempted some clergy in Africa from educational requirements. But such “big tent” United Methodism would mean that conservatives and liberals would have to put up with practices they find either unjust or unbiblical, providing another possibility of schism.
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