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United Methodists strike down ban on ordination of gay clergy

Jorge Lockward, left, minister of worship arts at the Church of the Village in New York City, leads a spontaneous group of United Methodists in singing after the vote to eliminate a ban on the ordination of gay clergy, at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., on May 1, 2024. (RNS photo/Yonat Shimron)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (RNS) — United Methodists meeting for their top legislative assembly Wednesday (May 1) overwhelmingly overturned a measure that barred gay clergy from ordination in the nation’s second-largest Protestant body.

With a simple vote call and without debate, delegates to the General Conference removed the ban on the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” – a prohibition that dates to 1984.

With that vote, the worldwide denomination of some 11 million members joins the majority of liberal Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ, which also ordain LGBTQ clergy.

The morning vote on the motion was part of a larger series of calendar items voted on in bulk. They also included a motion barring superintendents, or overseers, from punishing clergy for performing a same-sex wedding or prohibiting a church from holding a same-sex wedding.

The vote on the calendar items was 692-51, or about 93 percent in favor.

After the vote, LGBTQ delegates and their allies gathered on the floor of the Charlotte Convention Center to sing, hug, cheer and shed tears. As they sang liberation songs, “Child of God” and “Draw the Circle Wide,” they were joined by Bishop Tracy S. Malone, the president of the denomination’s Council of Bishops.

The votes reverse policies adopted at the denomination’s 2019 General Convention, when delegates tightened bans on gay clergy and same-sex marriage. Most of those 2019 measures have now been reversed.

After the 2019 General Convention, some 7,600 traditionalist churches across the United States — about 25 percent of the total number of U.S. churches — left the denomination, fearing that the tightening of the bans would not hold.

The absence of delegates from churches that left the denomination accounted for the quick reversal of the policies.

Wednesday’s vote follows several others approved Tuesday that removed mandatory minimum penalties for clergy who officiate same-sex weddings as well as a ban on funding for LGBTQ causes that “promote acceptance of homosexuality.”

Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News Magazine, a theologically conservative advocacy group, said the votes were expected.

“It indicates a consensus in the United Methodist Church that it wants to go in a much more liberal pathway,” said Lambrecht, who previously served as a United Methodist pastor.

Lambrecht, who is observing the conference along with some members from the Wesleyan Covenant Association, another dissenting group, wanted to reopen the time period churches may leave the United Methodist Church with their properties. That exit window closed at the end of 2023.

“What we’re asking for is a fair opportunity for churches to continue disaffiliating, if they don’t like the new direction that the church is choosing,” he said.

But on Wednesday, the General Conference instead voted to eliminate the pathway to disaffiliation. The vote on that motion passed 519-203, or by 72 percent.

Several African pastors and laypeople are also opposed to the loosening of rules on gays.

Still to be voted on is a larger measure to remove from the rule book, called the Book of Discipline, a 1972 addition that says homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Book of Discipline also defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Those are expected to be debated as part of a revision to the denomination’s social principles.

Despite the denomination’s restrictions, a growing group of gay clergy had been ordained over the past decade, including two openly gay bishops. According to the Reconciling Ministries Network, there are 324 gay UMC clergy in the U.S., including candidates for ordination. Of those, about 160 are in same-sex marriages.

From Religion News Service. May not be republished.