Update: United Methodist Church delegates Feb. 26 voted to strengthen a ban on gay clergy and same-sex marriages in a controversial decision that threatens to divide the church. The article below was written prior to the decision. Rev. McShane, among the church's progressive faction that supports LGBTQ inclusion, plans to write another column in the wake of this week's historic United Methodist conference in St. Louis.
This has not been a good news cycle for churches. The Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention have recently come into view as they struggle with how to hold their leaders to account for bad behavior. And in just a few days, the United Methodist Church will crowd its way into the headlines to air its own internal struggles.
The United Methodist Church is a very democratic organization. Bishops direct the life of the churches in their geographic region, but every piece of church doctrine and policy gets set by an every-four-year General Conference. Lay and clergy delegates from all over the globe come together to vote on what we believe and how we will act as a denomination.
Since 1972, Methodists have been at odds with one another over whether and how LGBTQ persons should be included in the life of the United Methodist Church. At one end of the spectrum are those who believe that the Bible is clear, that homosexuality is a violation of an unchanging moral code that God set up thousands of years ago. At the other end are those who believe that the essence of God’s relationship with humanity is a story of love and wholeness and inclusion, that no one is outside of God’s unconditional embrace, no matter who they love or which gender expresses their wholeness.
The difference shows up in church law about who can be ordained, and whether pastors and local churches can bless same-gender weddings. Currently, church law does not allow for full inclusion.
Every four years, when the General Conference gathers, it has been stalemated by this disagreement. Like a persistent stomach ache, this divide over homosexuality is a symptom of more fundamental differences – about how we read the Bible, about the purposes of our faith, even about who God is. On both sides of the issue, there are good people. And we all know that our preoccupation with this conflict stands in the way of much good the Church could be doing in the world.
United Methodist delegates were gathering this week in St. Louis for a specially called General Conference to decide whether we can remain a single, united denomination even if we never agree on this aspect of our beliefs and our life together. Other Protestant denominations – Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian – have already been through similar moments. Each of them has splintered over the same issue.
My own church, Los Altos United Methodist, is firmly committed to full inclusion. Years ago, the congregation voted to make that commitment public, even at the risk of defying the official stance of the wider Church we belong to and love and support financially. We are hoping for an outcome to this week’s conference that will allow for this difference inside our continuing connection to other United Methodist churches around the globe.
But Los Altos United Methodist’s identity as a safe and welcoming place for all people will not change. In fact, we’re already planning to celebrate the outcome of this General Conference – whatever it is – with a worship service and concert featuring the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, 5 p.m. March 10. You’re welcome to join us.
For the past several weeks, we’ve been praying for the delegates and leaders of this conference – for their wisdom and courage, and a model for how people might live together in peace even when they are deeply divided. You’re welcome to join us in this prayer, too.
The Rev. Kathi McShane is senior pastor at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. For more information, call 948-1083 or visit laumc.org.