RELIGION

United Methodists remove anti-gay language from their official teachings

May 2, 2024, 3:26 PM

FILE - The Rev. Bill Farmer, center, speaks to members of the congregation during service at the Gr...

FILE - The Rev. Bill Farmer, center, speaks to members of the congregation during service at the Grace Methodist Church Sunday, May 14, 2023, in Homosassa Springs, Fla. The new congregation was created by former United Methodists after their previous congregation voted to stay in that denomination. Grace Church affiliated with the more conservative Global Methodist Church. A quarter of U.S. congregations in the United Methodist Church have received permission to leave the denomination during a five-year window, closing in December 2023, that authorized departures for congregations over disputes involving the church's LGBTQ-related policies. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — United Methodist delegates on Thursday removed a 52-year-old declaration from their official social teachings that deemed “the practice of homosexuality … incompatible with Christian teaching” — part of a wider series of historic reversals of the denomination’s longstanding disapproval of LGBTQ activity.

The historic vote came as delegates also approved a new definition of marriage as a covenant between “two people of faith” while recognizing the couple may or may not involve a man and a woman. That replaces an exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage and followed a debate that exposed tensions between some U.S. and international delegates.

The 523-161 vote to approve a section of the church’s Revised Social Principles took place at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in the penultimate day of their 11-day legislative gathering in Charlotte.

It came a day after the General Conference removed its longstanding ban on “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained or appointed as ministers. Step by step, delegates have been removing anti-LGBTQ language throughout their official documents.

But the marriage definition was approved only after debate and a compromise amendment — one of the few instances of open debate during this otherwise overwhelmingly progressive conference.

“God designed marriage to be between a man and a woman,” said Nimia Peralta from the Northwest Philippines. While the conference earlier approved a regionalization plan enabling different parts of the global church to adapt rules to their local contexts, “God’s word can never be regionalized,” she said.

The Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia held aloft a Bible as he said: “We do not have another Bible apart from this Bible. … The Bible is very emphatic that we have marriage between a man and a woman.”

But the Rev. James Howell of Western North Carolina applauded the new language as being able to “embrace everyone.”

“Cynics and young adults will not listen to us talk about Jesus if we say we do not condone people they love and care about,” Howell said. “Friends, it’s time.”

The Rev. Kalaba Chali, based in Kansas, said the principles are general enough without forcing people in different cultural contexts “to do things the same way.”

The approval came only after an amendment offered by lay delegate Molly Mwayera of East Zimbabwe, who noted that many African countries do not allow for same-sex marriage. After extended wordsmithing, the assembly settled on an amended item that affirmed marriage as a sacred covenant bringing “two people of faith (adult man and woman of consenting age or two adult persons of consenting age) into union.”

It’s the UMC’s first legislative gathering since 2019, one that features its most progressive slate of delegates in memory due to the departure of many conservatives from the denomination. More than 7,600 mostly conservative congregations in the United States — one quarter of the denomination’s American total — disaffiliated because the UMC essentially stopped enforcing its bans on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination.

Those churches left under a window that enabled American churches to leave with their properties, normally held by the denomination, under more favorable than normal terms. While the conference voted against extending that window to international churches, the liberalization measures approved by the conference could still prompt departures of some international churches through different means — particularly in Africa, where conservative sexual values prevail and where same-sex activity is criminalized in some countries.

The progressive momentum of the General Conference was evident from the vote Thursday. They voted on the last of a series of approvals of a wholesale rewrite of the denomination’s Social Principles — a non-binding but influential compendium of the denomination’s social stances on everything from war and peace to the environment and family relations.

The new version no longer includes this language from the previous one: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching,” while it also urged members not to condemn gays and lesbians.

The old version said sexual relations are “affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

The new version omits this phrase and describes “human sexuality as a sacred gift” and a “healthy and natural part of life that is expressed in wonderfully diverse ways.” It doesn’t say anything about restricting sexual activity to marriage. It does say people have the right to consent to sexual activity and condemns sexual harassment and exploitation and opposes pornography and its “destructive impact.”

The new version calls for human rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and other racial, ethnic and gender categories.

Thursday’s change is particularly significant because the statement of homosexuality being “incompatible with Christian teaching” dates back to the beginning of the 52-year-old debate on LGBTQ issues within one of the nation’s largest Protestant denominations. The phrasing was adopted on the floor of the 1972 General Conference via an amendment proposed by a delegate, added to the original draft statement that had said “persons of homosexual orientation are persons of sacred worth.”

The denomination had been revising and adding to the Social Principles for decades; this amounts to the first wholesale rewrite in many years. Other sections of the rewrite were approved earlier this week.

The drafters of the revision chose more general language because the denomination spans countries and cultures around the world, said John Hill, interim general secretary at the Board of Church and Society, at a news conference earlier this week.

“We have a church whose local contexts are dramatically different,” he said. “And so our hope was that statements that could speak theologically to these matters, but not to any specific context, could then be applied across the context of the church.”

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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United Methodists remove anti-gay language from their official teachings