The Methodist Church in the U.K. will allow same-sex marriages for the first time, after delegates voted overwhelmingly to change its definition of matrimony. Methodists are expected to start conducting same sex marriages later this year.
For British Methodists, the previous definition of marriage was the union of a man and a woman, which left out most LGBTQ worshippers. On Wednesday, delegates to the Methodist Conference voted 254 to 46 to endorse a definition that says marriage is “a lifelong union in body, mind and spirit of two people who freely enter into it.”
At the same time, the delegates sought to appease members and clergy who believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, by affirming that definition as well. In effect, the Methodist Church now has dual definitions of marriage – the previous definition and the new broader one.
According to a resolution adopted this week about marriage: “Within the Methodist Church this is understood in two ways: that marriage can only be between a man and a woman; that marriage can be between any two people. The Methodist Church affirms both understandings and makes provision in its Standing Orders for them.”
Under a “Freedom of Conscience” clause, no minister or congregant will be required to conduct or otherwise participate in a marriage service for a same-sex couple “should it be contrary to the dictates of his or her conscience to do so.”
Methodism is the fourth largest religious denomination in Britain, with about 164,000 members in more than 4,000 churches. With its vote, the Methodist Church becomes the largest denomination in Britain to endorse same-sex marriages.
Church leaders said they hope the dual definitions will help persuade conservative members and congregations not to leave the church because of disagreements about same-sex marriage, as some have threatened to do, and protect ministers from discrimination charges if they decline to marry gay couples.
“The debate today and our wider conversation has been conducted with grace and mutual respect,” Rev. Sonia Hicks, who made history last month when she became the first black woman elected and inducted as president of the Methodist Conference in Britain, told The Guardian. “As we move forward together after this historic day for our Church, we must remember to continue to hold each other in prayer and to support each other respecting our differences.”
LGBTQ groups praised the Church for its stance.
Rev. Sam McBratney, chair of the Dignity and Worth campaign group, called it “a momentous step on the road to justice” after years of “painful” conversations.
“Some of us have been praying for this day to come for decades and can hardly believe it is now here,” he said, according to the BBC.
“We are so grateful to our fellow Methodists for taking this courageous step to recognize and affirm the value and worth of LGBTQ+ relationships,” he said. “We reassure those who do not support this move that we want to continue to work and worship with you in the Church we all love.”
“To be told by the Church that you are worthy, that we accept you, and that you can be married in the eyes of God in the church you call home with friends and family – it means a great deal,” Jason McMahon, who is gay and training to be Methodist minister, said.
But former Methodist Conference Vice President Caroline Lawrence warned that a “significant minority” of Methodists may leave the church because of the change.
“Today is a line in the sand for many people and seen as a significant departure from our doctrine,” Lawrence said.
A similar debate over same sex marriages has been underway and remains unresolved within the United Methodist Church in the U.S.
Under a plan presented to the United Methodist General Conference last year, U.S. congregations that support same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy would remain in the United Methodist church, and congregations that oppose same-sex marriage would form a new denomination. Action has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but delegates are expected to vote on the plan when the conference meets next year.