What does Methodists’ delayed decision on LGBT issue mean?

The Rev. Ben Gosden is torn over the issue of treatment of LGBT members in the United Methodist Church.

The senior pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Savannah supports full inclusion of LGBT members, but he also is committed to following what church leaders decide.

“I work for the church, and I’m going to do what the church tells me to do,” he said.

Debate over full inclusion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, as well as allowing the performance of same-sex marriages, has created a deep divide among Methodists. It was a highly charged topic during the General Conference held this week in Portland, Ore., which included dozens of petitions for the church to address the issue.

Instead, the top policy-making body of the UMC voted to delay debate on human sexuality and created a special commission, named by the Council of Bishops, to examine and possibly revise the Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.

“I have hope that, by changing the context and the way we talk about this, we will have some clarity one way or the other,” Gosden said. “I hope the special committee will come back with some discernment.”

Steve Wood, lead pastor of Mount Pisgah UMC in Johns Creek, who attended the Portland meeting as a delegate, said he is encouraged by the church’s response asking the bishops to name a special committee to develop a strategy looking at how to proceed as a global church that is “faithfully in ministry to all people.”

“The church affirms in our Book of Discipline that marriage is a holy and three way covenant between one man and one woman in a covenant with God,” he said in an emailed statement. “We realize and respect that there are many civil laws that are in tension with a biblical worldview (as there were in the days of Jesus) and historical Wesleyan Christian orthodoxy and so we continue to work to be in ministry with respect to all people while maintaining our longstanding biblical stance.”

Currently, the church, which has more than 12.7 million members worldwide, does not ordain open and practicing gay clergy, nor does it allow same-sex marriages to be performed.

Jan Love, dean of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and a professor of Christianity and world politics, said the issue has placed the church into a “state of contention” for decades.

The United Methodists have been expanding their global reach. At least 40 percent of that growth, she said, has come from outside the United States, much of it in Africa.

“The vast majority live in a cultural context that is very different from the cultural context of the United States,” she said, noting that the movement to include LGBT people “as having full rights … has not spread around the world.”

The church is struggling with the issue of such global growth and cultural issues, as well as how or whether to be more inclusive. “The potential for schism is very high and it remains high,” Candler’s Love said.

Josh Noblitt, an openly gay United Methodist pastor and a Democratic candidate for state House District 59, said he is cautiously optimistic about the creation of the commission, though he wonders whether it will result in meaningful dialogue or just “punt it (the issue) down the road a little farther.”

The General Conference only meets every four years, and he hopes any action will be taken long before the next gathering. The Council of Bishops hinted that a special General Conference could be held in 2018 or 2019.

“There’s enough room at the table for everyone; we just have to acknowledge that and agree to that,” Noblitt said.

While he is open about his sexuality, he knows of others who serve in the ministry who are not. “They do not feel comfortable saying it out loud. People have a fear of losing their jobs, ordination or alienating people. That fear is real.”

Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, which advances LGBT issues and inclusion in the Methodist church, said, “It is just a beginning, but it signals hope to an end of church trials, to celebrating all marriages, to accepting the gifts of our (LGBT) candidates for ministry, clergy and lay employees.”

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