United Methodists repeal longstanding ban on LGBTQ clergy

United Methodist delegates have repealed their church’s longstanding ban on LGBTQ clergy with no debate

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — United Methodist delegates repealed their church's longstanding ban on LGBTQ clergy with no debate on Wednesday, removing a rule forbidding "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from being ordained or appointed as ministers.

Delegates voted 692-51 at their General Conference — the first such legislative gathering in five years. That overwhelming margin contrasts sharply with the decades of controversy around the issue. Past General Conferences of the United Methodist Church had steadily reinforced the ban and related penalties amid debate and protests, but many of the conservatives who had previously upheld the ban have left the denomination in recent years, and this General Conference has moved in a solidly progressive direction.

Applause broke out in parts of the convention hall Wednesday after the vote. A group of observers from LGBTQ advocacy groups embraced, some in tears. “Thanks be to God,” said one.

The change doesn’t mandate or even explicitly affirm LGBTQ clergy, but it means the church no longer forbids them. It’s possible that the change will mainly apply to U.S. churches, since United Methodist bodies in other countries, such as in Africa, have the right to impose the rules for their own regions. The measure takes effect immediately upon the conclusion of General Conference, scheduled for Friday.

The consensus was so overwhelming that it was rolled into a “consent calendar,” a package of normally non-controversial measures.

“It seemed like such a simple vote, but it carried so much weight and power, as 50 years of restricting the Holy Spirit’s call on people’s lives has been lifted,” said Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church.

“People can live fully into their call without fear," said Oliveto, of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area, which includes Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. "The church we’ve loved has found a home for us.”

Also approved was a measure that forbids district superintendents — or regional administrators — from penalizing clergy for either performing a same-sex wedding or for refraining from performing one. It also prohibits superintendents from forbidding a church from hosting a same-sex wedding or requiring it to.

That measure further removes scaffolding around the various LGBTQ bans that have been embedded in official church law and policy. On Tuesday, delegates began taking such steps.

Delegates are also expected to vote soon on whether to replace the denomination's official Social Principles with a new document that no longer calls the “practice of homosexuality … incompatible with Christian teaching” and that now defines marriage as between “two people of faith” rather than between a man and a woman.

The changes are historic in a denomination that has debated LGBTQ issues for more than half a century at its General Conferences, which typically meet every four years.

About 100 LGBTQ people and allies gathered outside the Charlotte Convention Center after the vote — many with rainbow-colored scarves and umbrellas — to celebrate, pray and sing praise songs accompanied by a drum.

Angie Cox, an observer from Ohio, said she has gone before her conference’s board of ordained ministry six times but was “told no just because of the prohibition on LGBTQ clergy.” She said Wednesday’s vote “means I might be able finally to live fully into my calling.”

The vote follows the departure of more than 7,600 American congregations — one-quarter of all UMC congregations in the U.S — reflecting conservative dismay over the denomination not enforcing its LGBTQ bans. The departures took place between 2019 and 2023 under a temporary window enabling congregations to keep their properties under relatively favorable terms.

The conference on Wednesday voted formally to close that window, over the pleas of conservatives who wanted it extended, particularly since the original window only applied to U.S. and not international churches.

“To limit its function to the United States (portion of the) United Methodist Church, that is a form of disfavor for the church in Africa,” said the Rev. Jerry Kulah, a delegate from Liberia.

Dixie Brewster, a delegate from the Great Plains Conference covering Kansas and Nebraska, called for a path for her fellow conservatives to disaffiliate smoothly. “We want a place to go peacefully," she said. “We will not be disruptive. I do love all, I love my homosexual friends. I just view the Scriptures a different way.”

But others said the disaffiliation process of recent years tore apart congregations and families.

“We cannot continue to center the voices of distrust,” said delegate Lonnie Chafin from Northern Illinois.

Some pointed out there are other ways that congregations and entire conferences can still disaffiliate — noting that the General Conference last week approved the departure of some churches in the former Soviet Union — though others say this is overly burdensome.

This week's votes could prompt departures of some international churches, particularly in Africa, where more conservative sexual values prevail and where same-sex activity is criminalized in some countries.

The conference actions represent “a serious drift away from the truth,” Kulah said in an interview. “The church is now buying into culture. The Bible has not changed, but the church has changed.”

Last week, the conference endorsed a regionalization plan that essentially would allow the churches of the United States the same autonomy as other regions of the global church. That change — which still requires local ratification — could create a scenario where LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage are allowed in the United States but not in other regions.

The church's 1972 General Conference approved a statement in its non-binding Social Principles that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching" — a phrase omitted in a proposed revision to the Social Principles that is also headed for a conference vote this week.

The now-repealed ban on clergy who are "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" was originally enacted in 1984, when the conference also voted to require “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.”

The denomination had until recently been the third largest in the United States, present in almost every county. But its 5.4 million U.S. membership in 2022 is expected to drop once the 2023 departures are factored in.

The denomination also counts 4.6 million members in other countries, mainly in Africa, though earlier estimates have been higher.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP's collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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