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.