Struggling to avoid a split over gay rights, the top policy-making body of the United Methodist Church on Wednesday narrowly approved a full review of all church law on sexuality, amid an emotional meeting roiled by talk of schism.
Delegates at the Methodist General Conference, meeting in Portland, Oregon, voted 428-405 to delay all consideration of LGBT-related proposals. Instead, the delegates created a commission that will spend at least two years reviewing policy on the subject, contained in the Methodist Book of Discipline, with the goal of developing a plan to address their differences.
The denomination has 12.7 million members worldwide and is the third-largest faith group in the U.S.
"We are at a precipice," said Lonnie Chafin, a delegate from the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, or church district, speaking in favor of forming the commission. "There is urgency before us. The church might divide."
While other mainline Protestant groups, including the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have approved same-sex marriage, the Methodists have upheld a policy they adopted in 1972, calling same-gender relationships "incompatible with Christian teaching."
As gay rights gained acceptance in broader society and in other churches, Methodist LGBT advocates stepped up pressure for the denomination to lift prohibitions on ordination for people with same-sex partners, along with a ban on gay weddings. However, the denomination is on a more conservative path, with its greatest growth in the U.S. South and overseas, regions where conservative views predominate. Of the 864 delegates at the Oregon meeting, 30 percent are from Africa.
A recent survey by the church found about 54 percent of U.S. pastors and lay people in leadership roles agreed with the church restrictions on gays and lesbians, although only 41 percent of congregants held the same view. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, who leads Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, estimates two-thirds of Methodists are centrists who could live with those differences. But Methodist conservatives and liberals have become even more polarized over the years, raising questions about how they can stay in the same church.
Matt Berryman, head of Reconciling Ministries Network, a Methodist LGBT advocacy group, said the commission plan "signals hope." The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, a caucus of evangelical Methodists, said the plan has "some potential to resolve our differences" but is "fraught with peril," depending partly on whether conservative views will be heard.
Clergy who support gay rights have been increasingly defiant, conducting same-sex marriages or coming out as gay and lesbian from the pulpit. Doing so risked penalties, including permanent loss of clergy credentials. Conservatives have stepped up demands for punishment of such actions. Separately Wednesday, the Judicial Council, or top church court, ruled that mandatory penalties, which conservatives had sought, were unconstitutional.
At the meeting, which began last week, buzz about a potential breakup grew as some bishops and leaders of different streams within Methodism, including conservatives and LGBT advocates, met privately on whether the church could stay unified.
The group discussed a proposed division of the church into conservative, centrist and liberal wings — a split that would have been the most dramatic realignment over homosexuality in American Protestantism. The church began in 1784 and has property and investments worth billions of dollars.
The rumors intensified to the point that the president of the Council of Bishops, Bishop Bruce Ough, was compelled to stand before the full conference Tuesday to address them. He said no plan would be advanced to break up the denomination, but he acknowledged bishops were divided and struggling to find a way to move forward.
"I have a broken heart in that collectively we have a broken heart," Ough told the delegates. "Our heart breaks over the pain, distrust, anger, anxiety and disunity" evident at the conference.
As committees rejected appeals to lift LGBT prohibitions, gay rights advocates staged multiple protests, standing on the perimeter of one session with rainbow-colored duct tape over their mouths and lying on the floor with their hands and feet bound.
"People are walking down the street in tears saying, 'This is not the United Methodist Church that I joined,' " said Dorothee Benz, an LGBT rights advocate and delegate from the New York Annual Conference.
The Good News caucus for evangelical Methodists said the church was in a "desperate moment" that required stronger leadership.
Delegates directed Ough to come back with a more concrete suggestion for the church's future. On Wednesday, Ough proposed the commission to review church policy.
The plan passed after an anguished debate that included a plea from young Methodists for unity that drew a standing ovation. The proposal in its initial form was rejected. Ough's plan was approved on a second vote.