Two United Methodist churches in Mississippi are making moves to come out from under the UMC umbrella over the greater UMC’s unclear position on homosexuality. While these two churches are not the only ones across the country, they are certainly substantial ones (one being the most attended church in the denomination). The growing tension has caused the UMC to appoint a Way Forward Committee to nail down a position on their church’s response to homosexuality.
The problem the UMC is facing stems from a lack of clear position on homosexuality. Lead pastors of the Mississippi congregations call the ongoing debates a “distraction” from ministry and cite this issue as grounds for withdrawing from the UMC.
The churches in question are The Orchard, located in Tulepo, and Getwell Road UMC, located in a suburb of Memphis. In February, the two congregations put the question of withdrawal to a vote among their parishioners. Congregants at The Orchard voted 1,025 in favor, 2 against and 4 abstentions. At Getwell Road, the voted landed at 782 in favor, 19 against, and 7 unsure. Despite the landslide votes in favor of separation, however, the bishop of the Mississippi area, Bishop James Swanson Sr., “doesn’t consider the votes binding,” according to a news article on UMC’s website.
Officially the UMC bans clergy from officiating at same-sex unions and ordaining “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. However, there has been quite a bit of pushback from within the UMC on this stance.
While some churches in the more conservative Bible belt regions of the U.S. (like the churches in Mississippi) take a more traditional view of marriage, there are more progressive churches (mainly in the denomination’s Western Jurisdiction) that do not. For instance, In the summer of 2016, the Western Jurisdiction elected and consecrated a married lesbian, Bishop Karen Oliveto. Feelings are mixed on this one within the UMC, as the Judicial Council, the top court of the UMC, plans to take up a petition concerning Oliveto’s election in April of this year.
In January, the Commission on a Way Forward held its first meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. The Commission includes 32 United Methodists from nine countries, and, unlike other committees commissioned by the UMC to discuss homosexuality from a theological and Scriptural perspective, “this commission is looking at building relationships across cultures and determining how to live with each other amid theological diversity.” While that initial meeting focused on a lot of relationship-building, the Commission has been charged with the task of recommending changes to the UMC’s Book of Discipline. This document has remained unchanged regarding homosexuality since 1972. Currently, the Book states, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
After the UMC’s General Conference in 2016, the threat of a schism has been on nearly everyone’s mind. Which is why things like the Commission on a Way Forward are in progress and pastors are trying to be sensitive to the needs of their congregations.
Bishop Swanson remains hopeful about reconciliation between the UMC and the Mississippi congregations. “We’re trying to say to the congregation, ‘We love you,’” the bishop said. “This is a family quarrel, a family dispute. We don’t believe it’s worth separating over.”