UMC bishops call for unity at General Conference as homosexuality schism looms large

Delegates and bishops pray before a key vote on church policies about homosexuality during the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis.
Delegates and bishops pray before a key vote on church policies about homosexuality during the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. | UMNS/Mike DuBose

United Methodist Church bishops are calling for unity as its General Conference kicks off Tuesday after thousands of churches left the mainline Protestant denomination amid efforts to alter its official stance against homosexuality and the ordination of LGBT individuals.

The UMC General Conference is a multiday churchwide legislative gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina, which begins on Tuesday and runs until May 3.

A group of current and former UMC bishops based in Europe released a statement in advance of the gathering, acknowledging the decades-long internal debate over sexual ethics and calling for unity in the denomination.

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"For almost five decades, United Methodists have disagreed over the understanding of human sexuality, which has caused immense pain and hurt to many people," they stated.

"We are committed to the unity of the United Methodist Church, and we are longing for a United Methodist Church that will move towards new forms of being a connectional church, a General Conference focused on global essentials, and an empowerment of regions for contextually relevant forms of living our common mission mandate."

Although over 7,000 congregations have left the UMC in recent years amid its schism on homosexuality, the bishops declared that "the United Methodist Church will remain a faithful witness to the Christian gospel."

"Nevertheless, we are one United Methodist Church, and with all the challenges this entails, we, as your bishops, are committed to be shepherds of the whole flock, and thereby provide leadership toward the goal of understanding, reconciliation and unity in the body of Christ," the bishops continued.

Over the past several years, the UMC has experienced divisive debate over whether to change the wording in its Book of Discipline, which currently prohibits the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of people in same-sex romantic relationships.

Although efforts in past General Conferences to change the Book of Discipline have failed, theological progressive leaders within the denomination have often refused to follow or enforce the rules.

In 2019, at a special session of General Conference, delegates voted to add Paragraph 2553 to the Book of Discipline, a temporary measure creating a process for congregations to leave the UMC over the debate.

According to UM News, approximately 7,500 congregations disaffiliated from the UMC via Paragraph 2553 from 2019 to 2023, with the majority of them opting to affiliate with the recently formed Global Methodist Church.

Due to the considerable number of conservatives who have left the UMC over the past couple of years, many believe that the delegates at this year's General Conference will finally change the Book of Discipline.

The UMC Philippines Central Conference's College of Bishops released a statement earlier this month, seemingly refuting claims that the UMC was altering its doctrine and encouraging people to "seek unity by remaining faithful to Jesus Christ through the United Methodist Church."

The Philippines bishops denounced theologically conservative entities like the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Global Methodist Church, alleging that these entities were engaged in a "disinformation campaign" that falsely claimed "the UMC is changing its doctrines and beliefs about Christ and the Scriptures."

"As we approach a historic General Conference, we join our whole church in prayer and hope that the values of unity, equity, and respect for our missional contexts will be lifted and affirmed as expressions of our love for one another," they continued.

"We pray that as we face seemingly insurmountable challenges as a Church we will remain as a covenant community committed to honor, respect, and love one another despite our differences."

Although the Philippines Central Conference denied claims the UMC will change its doctrine, others within the UMC have said that changing the language in the Book of Discipline to be more LGBT-inclusive is a top priority. 

A proposal to amend the Book of Discipline to remove all language pertaining to homosexuality has been introduced by the Rev. Brian Erickson, senior pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood, Alabama, and Rev. H.N. Gibson, associate pastor of East Lake United Methodist Church in Birmingham.

Delegates from Alabama, a state where more than half of UMC churches have disaffiliated in recent years, told that one of their three main goals is to remove "harmful language regarding homosexuality." 

However, Lisa Keys-Mathews, a lay leader and reserve General Conference delegate, told the newspaper that there are still enough theological conservatives left in the UMC to resist progressive proposals.

"There are loud voices on both ends," Keys-Mathews said. "There are people intent on causing chaos at General Conference. That disturbs me. That saddens me."

Also present at the conference will be an unofficial caucus of LGBT-identified clergy, who will advocate for changes in the denomination’s stance on homosexuality.

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