The United Methodist Church reverses course on LGBTQ clergy ban

This is a big day in the United Methodist Church – to take off the books some of the things that have restrained us and limited us from fulfilling our mission.”

By Patrick M. DavisMay 3, 2024 2:42 pm

The United Methodist Church is making some historic changes to its stance on LGBTQ+ clergy and related policies.

Delegates from around the world are gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina right now for the church’s quadrennial General Conference, and there they voted to strike down the church’s LGBTQ clergy ban put in place some 40 years ago. They also voted that churches and clergy cannot be punished for holding same-sex marriages, nor punished for refusing to hold them.

LGBTQ issues have been at the center of many debates in the church, and this year’s conference is the first since about a quarter of UMC congregations disaffiliated.

Robert Schnase is bishop of the Rio Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, and he joined Texas Standard from the conference in Charlotte. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Were you in the room when the ban on LGBTQ clergy was officially lifted? 

Bishop Robert Schnase: Yes, I was sitting on the stage with the other bishops of the church. That’s where we sit through the General Conference. And, it was quite a moment.

It was interesting, though, that in some ways it was anticlimactic because of the way it came before the conference. In conferences past, there was active and sometimes contentious floor debate about these issues. And this time it was sent before the conference on a consent agenda that had many other items and petitions that were being approved.

And so picture this: a convention center with 800 delegates, 100 bishops, and probably another 1,000 people watching, and the consent agenda was adopted by 93%. And there was a little murmur of applause that went through the room as people kind of caught on that, “oh yeah, this is the big vote.”

That final vote, 692 to 51, as you were saying, more than 90% voting in approval. I have to ask, though, this coming in the wake of the disaffiliation of about a quarter of UMC congregations. How much was the timing of this tied to what’s happened over the past year? 

Well, so a lot has gone into this.

This restrictive language went into the Book of Discipline in 1972. So that’s 52 years ago. And it started with a single line. And over time, it’s been elaborated upon. So, as our culture started speaking of civil unions and then eventually marriage between same sex couples, then more restrictions went into our Book of Discipline that forbade pastors from participating in that.

So this reached its high point at the General Conference in 2019. The conference gathered to hear the report from a commission on a more moderate way forward in which both conservative voices and more progressive voices could coexist. It was a worldwide commission and I was one of the 26 members of that commission.

A conservative reaction arose to the commission and the restrictions put into our Book of Discipline multiplied exponentially. It took away even pastors’ right to due process if they performed a same-sex wedding. And most bishops, including many conservative bishops, simply said, “you know, I can’t do that.” 

For the sake of clarity, I mentioned 40 years ago a clergy ban was put into place. That was one of the many steps along the way since the early 1970s, right? 

That’s right. So in 1972 was the first language that read “we find the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Well, what about how homosexuality is seen in denominational teaching? What’s the latest on how the church regards marriage or homosexuality in general? 

Well, we’re not changing our doctrine. This never was a doctrinal issue.

We’re the United Methodist Church, so we’re a people of grace. And I think what’s different is how expansive your sense of God’s grace is. And for moderates and progressives, it extends to all people, regardless. That’s been the sense in most of our congregations.

The breaking point was 2019 and then the delay of the 2020 General Conference due to COVID. That’s when churches in that intervening time started to disaffiliate. And the result of that has been that in these kind of conference gatherings, there’s a sense that everybody wants to be in the room now.

And that whether you’re conservative – which we still have many conservatives theologically – whether moderate or progressive, that everyone has agreed that regardless of their theological position or preferred practice, that they are of the one church and that they’re going to stay together and they can not just tolerate but embrace other people, practicing ministry different.

Bishop, I know that you have been tracking the decline in church membership over the past many decades – and it’s been rather precipitous in the past decade or so. And I think some people hearing about this change may also wonder how much of this is an effort by the UMC to reach out to others who may feel just excluded? That this is bigger than the church in a sense. What would you say to them?

Well, I think there’s some truth to that, but this isn’t a church growth strategy. This is an issue of profound conviction, that this is who the United Methodist Church [is]. We’re a people of grace. And whether it’s reaching next generations or just a sense of justice for those who belong to the church…

This issue is, you know, not some abstract theological musings. For so many people in the room, so many people in the United Methodist Church, this isn’t abstract. It’s about their sister, their brother. It’s about their children. It’s about their relatives. It’s about their friends and coworkers.

So I don’t want it to be couched as just like, “what do we need to do to reach younger people?” Although I think the point is well taken that unless there were some greater openness and some embrace, that we would further alienate younger generations.

Now, it sounds like what you’re describing is a very balanced picture of what you’ve experienced. But I know you must have some pretty profound feelings about these changes personally. Would you mind if I asked you to share those with us?

Yeah. So I have always been of a mind that the church ought to be able to coexist with people of different points of view. Personally, I think this change is too late coming and that it should have moved this way long ago.

And yet, what was adopted, I agree with. It doesn’t require that pastors perform these weddings, nor does it restrain them from it. And so it gives contextual freedom.

There’s a world of difference between the communities that are served in some of our larger cities – San Antonio and Austin – and some of our rural communities and pastors need the tools that are necessary to meet the needs of the people around them. So I’m supportive of this.

I gotta say, I just have high hopes for the United Methodist Church. These votes that for General Conference after General Conference have been 48% to 52% – you know, close votes… Just about every significant vote of this General Conference has been 85% or 90% in agreement, even though we cover the world, with millions of members in Africa, in the Philippines and in Europe.

What about the Rio Texas Conference? How will these changes affect folks in this conference?

Well, so I serve the Rio Texas Conference as well as the New Mexico Conference. Both those conferences have lost about 30% of their churches in the last two years by disaffiliation.

The churches that remain, it’s kind of like I said a minute ago: when there’s gatherings of pastors, gatherings of lay persons today, the people who are there have agreed that they want to belong to a church that’s more diverse, that can tolerate differences and support each other’s ministry, even though one pastor may not practice the same practices as a another pastor.

Most of the churches that have been most sensitive in a conservative way to this have already left in this last two years. Most of the churches that remain have done that conscientiously, because they believe in this vision of the church and this expansive notion of God’s grace.

Bishop Schnase., I know that this sort of overshadows everything else right now, at least in the news cycle when it comes to the United Methodist Church. But I’m wondering, are there other big issues that you’re watching at the General Conference?

Well, one of the big issues in this – this is kind of internal, I suppose, to the United Methodist Church – but it’s called regionalization. And that’s the fact that we have millions of members in Africa, we have members in Europe and members in the Philippines and then in the U.S. And each of these other areas have had the freedom to adapt the practices of the church and rules of the church to their context. The U.S. church has not had that freedom.

So anytime we need to deal with things that apply to U.S. law, we have to gather people from all around the world, instead of tailor things to the U.S., whereas Africa has been able to adapt. I mean, let’s just face it, there are many countries in Africa where it’s illegal to be gay. And so when they think about their rules, they have to think about the law, and they have to think about how they do that.

The U.S., when we think about how many things in our book of rules has to do with legal issues and property matters that are peculiar to the U.S., what the regionalization does is it allows the U.S. church now to meet from time to time to particularly deal with U.S. issues the same way the other regions do.

Bishop, I want to follow up and ask, more broadly speaking, at the General Conference, it sounds like there’s a real focus on the disciplinary rules. Is that, in fact, the prime focus? And perhaps you could say a little bit more about why we’re talking about these sorts of rules as opposed to, say, talking about the ministry more broadly.

The majority of our time here is actually spent talking about, like, the adoption of a new set of social principles that talks about our place in the world. It talks about the work that we do to relieve suffering, the relief during time of tragedies around the world – of famine and the like –as well as the work in our local communities reaching young people, reaching and serving those who have been marginalized, standing as witness along the border, alongside refugees and migrants who are facing atrocious conditions.

I mean so much of the conversation – all our worship services, all our ministry reports – are focused on that. What makes the headlines tends to be the things that you’ve called and ask me about.

If you had the opportunity to say something that went beyond those headlines, what would you want to say about the UMC today?

Well, I love the United Methodist Church. It it has changed my life. My family was, when I was young, kind of asked to leave a denomination, and I know what that feels like – this narrowing sense of God’s grace that unless you conform in this way, you don’t belong here.

This is a big day in the United Methodist Church – to take off the books some of the things that have restrained us and limited us from fulfilling our mission. And I am just so hopeful.

The spirit in this General Conference – this is my ninth General Conference – the spirit in this conference has been amazing in terms of people’s desire to get back to work, to serve the communities where they live and to serve around the world.

Now, let me ask a question that sort of goes beyond rules and doctrine, dogma – however you want to perceive it. You’ve mentioned on several occasions in this conversation, “God’s grace.” What does that mean as a practical matter to you, as informed by what you’ve learned in the church?

Well, now I’m going to have to go to preaching.

Well, that’s an invitation for you there, Bishop.

To speak of God’s grace is to speak of God’s unmerited love, unearned love – that God loves you first, finally and forever, as if you’re the only person ever created. And there are people that desperately are in situations of violence, situations of poverty, situations of – whether it’s racism and systemic injustices – who need to hear that word: that you are loved and that there’s a voice speaking that word clearly. And we’re doing that through the United Methodist Church.

So when I talk about a theology of grace, which is the key component of the United Methodist Church, it’s using that as the starting point. That we are here to serve and to reveal the love that we have discovered in Jesus Christ.

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