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.