Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has called same-gender relationships "incompatible with Christian teaching" and has banned clergy from taking actions contrary to that position: No ordinations or clergy appointments are allowed for "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." No "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions" are permitted in churches. No clergy can preside at the ceremonies no matter where the events are held.
The church has also declared itself "dedicated to a ministry of Christ-like hospitality and compassion to persons of all sexual orientations" and has committed to supporting "certain basic human rights and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation."
Theological conservatives see no inconsistencies among those positions. Advocates for gays and lesbians do. They have debated at every national legislative meeting, or General Conference, for four decades with the same result: the "incompatible" language — and the related prohibitions — have stayed.
Frustration over the lack of change fueled the new movement to openly defy church law, starting in 2011 in Minnesota and New York. Methodist ministers had already been quietly officiating at same-gender ceremonies in some communities for years. A few of the more publicly defiant clergy had faced formal complaints or had been tried by the church. But the public marriage pledges brought new energy to the campaign.
By the spring of 2012, when General Conference had gathered in Florida, more than 1,100 clergy had signed on. But within the legislative meeting, delegates were unmoved. The conference once again voted to keep the status quo.
On the final day of the assembly, at a gathering of Methodists who support gay marriage, Talbert announced, "The time for talking is over."
"I declare to you that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience," Talbert told the cheering crowd. "I call on the more than 1,100 clergy who have signed the pledge to stand firm on their resolve to perform marriages among same-sex persons, same-sex couples, and to do so in the normal course of their pastoral duties, thus defying the laws that prohibit them from doing so."
He called the weddings "an act of biblical obedience" to the teaching that all people are created in God's image. Dorothee Benz, of Methodists in New Directions, a New York advocacy group spearheading the gay marriage drive, said, "that language of biblical obedience became a messaging touchstone."
The situation for United Methodists stands out because their fellow mainline Protestants have moved toward accepting gay relationships. The United Church of Christ began ordaining people with same-sex partners in the 1970s, and by 2005, had endorsed gay marriage. In 2003, the Episcopal Church elected the first bishop living openly with a same-sex partner, Bishop Gene Robinson. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have both struck down barriers to ordaining gays and lesbians. United Methodists are the second-largest U.S. Protestant group and have about 12.5 million members worldwide.
Demographics largely explain why the Methodists have maintained their marriage stance. The church, which once had a presence in nearly every county in the U.S., has become "more red state-y than it ever was," said David Steinmetz, a specialist in Christian history and retired professor at Duke Divinity School. Sandwiched between the liberal-leaning Northeast and Western districts are the more theologically conservative Methodist conferences, which tend to have larger and faster-growing congregations. Reconciling Ministries Network took on the geographic challenge last fall by adopting a new Southern outreach strategy.
Boosting the theologically conservative numbers are the burgeoning Methodist churches overseas, where the predominant views are traditional. At the next General Conference in 2016, the share of delegates from U.S. will drop to about 58 percent, while the contingent from Africa will rise to 30 percent, according to United Methodist News Service. Most U.S. Protestant denominations belong to some kind of international fellowship, but largely set their own policies at home. Methodists are the rare mainline group structured to give overseas members a direct say.
"The church is already partly in schism. You've got bishops not obeying the law of the church. You have pastors not obeying the law of the church," Steinmetz said. "How long can they live with two mindsets? I just don't know."
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