United Methodist Church leaders are meeting in St. Louis beginning Saturday to decide whether to lift a ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings.
The topic has become increasingly contentious in recent years, as more United Methodist clergy have come out as gay. United Methodists are among the last mainline Protestant denominations to address the issue, and some worry it could cause a major rift in the church.
"It's a little nerve wracking for a group of people you don't really know to make a decision about you," said Daron Smith, who's gay and a lifelong United Methodist in St. Louis.
This weekend, more than 860 delegates from across the world will convene for a four-day conference, where they'll debate and likely vote on one of three proposals.
One would allow same-sex weddings and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy — while also giving church conferences outside the U.S. the power to prohibit these practices.
Another more conservative plan would maintain current church policy and cut ties with regional church conferences that don't comply.
A third proposal would reorganize the church into three "values-based" groups and let each group make its own rules.
"We've tried to do our best due diligence [and] offer models that would allow us to remain together as a united church," said United Methodist Council of Bishops President, Ken Carter.
The United Methodist Church has more than 12 million members spread across the world. In the U.S., membership dropped to 6.9 million in 2016, down from 7.2 million in 2014. But globally, the church is growing, especially in African nations.
The broad diversity of church membership has made discussion around human sexuality more challenging, said Carter.
"In some nations of the world, homosexuality is a taboo subject, or it's against the law," he said. "So it's a more complex conversation for us, to try to develop a church law that can be open to all people."
According to church estimates, 58 percent of delegates at the St. Louis conference are from the U.S., while 30 percent hail from African countries. The remaining delegates are primarily from Europe, Asia and the Philippines.
For S. Jewell S. McGhee, a student at Eden Theological Seminary, the U.S. should not be the "unquestioned leader" of the discussion.
"I feel like the message that American Christians have given too often is that the rest of the world doesn't matter as much," McGhee said. "That is a message that is against the message of Christ as I see it."
The United Methodists are part of a long line of Protestant denominations that have grappled with the issue of human sexuality in recent years, including Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.
The difference, said historian of American religion Marie Griffith, is that United Methodists have held together a vast and disparate coalition longer.
"Some lean very progressive on the issue, some lean very conservative," said Griffith, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's very hard to know how you're going to hold people — especially people at the edges of that spectrum — together."
Regardless of the outcome, it may be months or years before any changes to church policy go into effect, particularly if they involve constitutional amendments.
But in St. Louis, Daron Smith and his husband Chris Finley aren't giving up hope.
"If the decision doesn't go our way this time, we'll keep fighting," he said. "The church belongs to everyone, not just a select few."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's a debate in the United Methodist Church over whether LGBTQ people can serve as clergy and permit same-sex marriage. Church leaders are meeting in St. Louis beginning today to decide and will vote on the issue. But some worry that it could tear United Methodists apart. St. Louis Public Radio's Shahla Farzan has the story.
SHAHLA FARZAN, BYLINE: Several dozen people fill the pews at Lafayette Park United Methodist Church in St. Louis.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing, unintelligible).
FARZAN: Among them is Kristen Leslie, an ordained elder in the church. Many of the worshippers here identify as LGBTQ. That's why Leslie and her husband chose this congregation
KRISTEN LESLIE: Because it was a church that we knew was living in a place of justice just by its very presence of who was in the congregation.
FARZAN: But current rules prohibit clergy in same-sex relationships from actually serving in the United Methodist Church. Pastors also aren't supposed to officiate at same-sex weddings. But Leslie, who's a professor at Eden Theological Seminary, has defied that rule. Since the early '90s, she's performed at least 25.
LESLIE: We are made in the image of God. And how we love each other, as long as it honors God, who am I to say? Love is love is love is love, as Lin-Manuel Miranda said.
FARZAN: The United Methodists have debated for years whether to make church policies more inclusive for LGBTQ people. It's largely been a conversation within the U.S. And that's something that concerns seminary student S. Jewell S. McGhee.
S JEWELL S MCGHEE: I feel like the message that American Christians have given too often is that the rest of the world doesn't matter as much. And that is a message that is against the message of Christ, as I see it.
FARZAN: The United Methodist Church has more than 12 million members spread across the world. U.S. membership has declined in recent years. But, globally, the church is growing, especially in African nations. And that presents a challenge, says United Methodist Council of Bishops president Ken Carter.
KEN CARTER: In some nations of the world, homosexuality is a taboo subject. Or it's against the law. And so it's just a more complex conversation for us.
FARZAN: At the St. Louis conference, more than 860 delegates from across the world will decide whether to lift the ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings.
There's a lot at stake, says Daron Smith, a gay man and lifelong United Methodist.
DARON SMITH: It's a little nerve-wracking for a group of people you don't really know to make a decision about you. But I'm hopeful this time. If the decision doesn't go our way this time, we'll keep fighting.
MARIE GRIFFITH: They avoided the issue as much as they could for as long as they could because they knew this was going to divide the church somehow.
FARZAN: Mary Griffith is a historian of American religion at Washington University. She says the United Methodists are part of a long line of Protestant denominations that have grappled with this issue, including Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. The difference is that Methodists have held together a vast and disparate coalition longer.
GRIFFITH: Some lean very progressive on the issue. Some lean very conservative. And it will be very, very interesting to see if they manage to hold that together this time or if the thing finally blows apart.
FARZAN: Methodists have weathered divides over social justice issues in the past. The church split over slavery during the Civil War and later reunited. And that gave seminary student S. Jewell S. McGhee hope.
MCGHEE: And I have a lot more faith in a denomination that has already been through trauma, that has already said, wow, we have gotten it wrong. So whatever happens, I am glad to be a part of this history.
FARZAN: Even if there is a split within the United Methodist Church, she says there's always the possibility it will heal. For NPR News, I'm Shahla Farzan in St. Louis.
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