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With Conservatives Gone, United Methodists Vote to Overturn Restrictions on LGBTQ Clergy

General Conference also voted to eliminate pathway for churches to disaffiliate

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (RNS) — Over the past two years, more than 25 percent of the United Methodist Church’s have disaffiliated from the denomination. The departure of these mostly conservative congregations cleared the path for United Methodists, meeting for their top legislative assembly Wednesday (May 1), to overwhelmingly overturn a measure that barred clergy who identify as LGBTQ from ordination in the denomination, a historic step for the nation’s second-largest Protestant body.

Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball presides at a session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church on April 29, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Peter Smith)

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 that until recently had some 11 million members — but which now likely has closer to seven million — joins other 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 clergy who identify as LGBTQ.

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, though the actual ban on same-sex weddings in churches has yet to be voted on.

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

The votes reverse policies taken on at the denomination’s 2019 General Convention, when delegates held the line and tightened its policies regarding LGBTQ issues within the denomination. 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% of the total number of U.S. churches — left the United Methodist Church, recognizing that the denomination would likely not maintain the tightening of the bans.

The absence of delegates from churches that left the denomination accounted for the quick reversal of the policies. The vote also motivated conservative church watchers to predict the ongoing decline of the denomination. Mark Tooley is the president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy. He said, “United Methodism, after is schism…, has chosen to follow the well charted path of rejecting the traditional Christian teaching about marriage. The other progressive Mainline Protestant denominations did so years ago, accelerating their decline. In our post denominational age, old national denominations have become passe. This vote will amplify that reality.”

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.”

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The Rev. 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%.

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

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 clergy who identify as LGBTQ 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.

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Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is a North Carolina-based reporter who has written about religion for more than 17 years. She is a national reporter and senior editor for Religion News Service.