In May, the United Methodist Church will hold its general conference and decide whether to allow a “traditionalist” denomination to split from the church over beliefs on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.
The proposal to split was announced two weeks ago and signed by 16 church leaders from around the world.
If a traditionalist denomination is allowed to break away, the existing United Methodist Church could repeal its ban on same-sex marriages and LGBTQ clergy.
There are 12 million members of the church around the world, and it is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States, according to National Public Radio.
George Edd-Bennett, pastor of Lodi’s Methodist church, said while the proposal was signed by 16 well-respected members of the denomination, there is very little likelihood the proposal will survive the conference’s priory session, given that 880 delegates from around the world will be discussing the issue.
“At the last general conference, by a very small margin, the rules against same-sex marriage and clergy were made harsher,” he said. “That caused acts of defiance throughout the nation, where bishops have decided not to do any rule enforcement related to human sexuality.”
Currently, ordained pastors are not allowed to perform same-sex marriages, and risk strict disciplinary action if they do. Members of the LGBTQ community are also not allowed to become ordained pastors.
During a special session of the church’s general conference last year, 53% of church leaders in attendance voted to uphold the same-sex and LGBTQ ban.
In addition, they approved a one-year suspension for a first offense of performing a same-sex marriage, and removal from the clergy after that. Those rules were set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020.
Edd-Bennett said all bishops west of the Rocky Mountains have been managing their congregations as inclusive churches for the last 20 years.
He added that members of the church who couldn’t bear the fact that congregations were becoming more inclusive had begun leaving in 1998.
“That’s a good representation of what’s happening in every pew and every home,” he said. “Families don’t agree (on the issue). People who sat side by side for 20 years don’t agree. It’s heartbreaking when the church can’t be grateful for everyone, and when it can’t figure out how to solve a disagreement.”
Edd-Bennett said the debate to allow LGBTQ members in the church has existed for about 44 years, and the proposal will most likely give both sides of the issue some sort of relief.
Those against same-sex marriage and clergy will be relieved, he said, because if the proposal is struck down then maybe the discussion will go away.
Those who are being oppressed in the church are feeling relieved, he said, because they now see this as an opportunity to finally be recognized and respected.
Edd-Bennett said his congregation, which tallies more than 400, includes members of the LGBTQ community. He said he’s never been asked to perform a same-sex marriage, but couples and clergy should not be punished for who they are.
“There’s never been a same-gender ceremony in this church,” he said. “But there is no reason to expel somebody because they have a same-gender relationship. They are welcome in this church.”
If the proposal is approved in May, local churches must decide whether to stay in the United Methodist Church or join a new denomination by the end of 2024.