(Photo: UMNS/Kathleen Barry)
The United Methodist Church's (UMC) General Conference is currently taking place in Tampa, Fla., and will feature its continuing debate on gay clergy and same-sex marriage. Some have suggested that, in order to keep its membership from dwindling, the Methodist church must come to a compromise on its long-held doctrines on such issues.
Nearly 1,000 delegates, 40 percent of whom live outside the United States, are present at the General Conference, which happens once every four years. At each assembly for more than 40 years now, the UMC has debated its position on homosexuality. The conference, which takes place between April 24 and May 4, announced that this year there are more than 70 petitions on homosexuality, many of which seek to rewrite articles 161F and 161B in the 2008 United Methodist Book of Discipline that address homosexual clergy and same-sex marriage.
The UMC supports the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, and requires clergy members to adhere to "the highest standards of holy living." According to the church, "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."
The debate on those issues is centered on a decades-long drop in membership the Methodist church has experienced, with numbers down to 7.8 million members in the U.S. Gay rights activists have suggested that in order to attract young Americans, the church needs to loosen its stance on homosexuality and recognize gay unions and clergy. Conservatives, however, are warning against abandoning or revising long-held church doctrines.
According to Russell Richey, co-author of a two-volume history of Methodism in the United States and former dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, the UMC is experiencing higher rates of growth in the Bible Belt as opposed to the liberal West and East Coasts, where much of its membership has fallen.
Last year, almost 1,200 Methodist clergy pledged to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies despite official church teachings, but many of those churches have since split from the UMC. An even greater split is evident at the General Conference, the Houston Chronicle claimed – in attendance are delegates from U.S. states where homosexual marriage is legal, as well as representatives from countries like Liberia, where practicing homosexuality is considered a crime.
A suggestion of a compromise has been argued by some delegates who believe that Methodist attitudes toward gay marriage should reflect the locality of each church – meaning that pastors who live in states where same-sex marriage is legal should be free to perform such marriages, while clergy in other states should adhere to official teachings of the church.