Becky Garrison: A Gallup poll released on May 20, 2011 states that for the first time a majority (53%) of Americans believes same-sex marriage should be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages. Also, an April, 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that for the first time there is as much strong support as strong opposition to gay marriage – 22 percent each.
Despite this shift toward marriage equality in the broader U.S. culture, during its quadrennial General Conference that ended on May 4, 2012, the United Methodist Church (UMC) voted 39% to 61% against changing long-contested language in the church’s Book of Discipline that calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” In addition, they defeated a petition that would acknowledge that faithful United Methodists disagree on the role of LGBT people in the church.
However, as reported by David Weekley, the only openly transgender clergy person serving in a UMC congregation, they were unsuccessful in adding transgender people to their “incompatible” list. Hence transgender clergy can serve in the UMC assuming that like Weekley, they are married to someone of the opposite sex. However, the UMC did not support Weekley’s petition for a study of gender identity, nor did they address other issues relating to LGBT persons such as same sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate LGBT clergy persons.
During the convention, the Common Witness Coalition held a number of events to challenge all forms of exclusion. During the last day of the conference, when the petition to change the Book of Disciple was voted down, Candace Chellew-Hodge noted at Religion Dispatches that “when the conference reconvened after a break, those who supported the petition remained in the hall, singing as business began again. The presiding bishop, Michael Coyner of the Indiana Conference, shut down the meeting, calling the LGBT advocates a “security concern.” According to an email press release sent by the Common Witness Coalition, “Leaders of the demonstration were told that the legislation was postponed to avoid more harm to LGBT people and their supporters.”
In The New York Times, Laurie Goodstein observed that American membership in the UMC, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States, declined to about 7.8 million while its membership abroad has grown to about 4.4 million, mostly in Africa and the Philippines, where homosexuality is not accepted. She added that about 40 percent of this year’s nearly 1,000 delegates are from outside the United States—an increase of more than 10 percent from their 2008 conference.
At present, it remains unclear how many pro-LGBT voices will remain with the UMC in the hopes of enacting change at their 2016 General Conference and who will choose to leave over this issue. While the UMC continues its ban on granting equal rights to LGBT individuals, other mainline denominations including the United Church of Christ (UCC), Episcopal, Lutheran (ELCA) and Presbyterian (PCUSA) have made strides toward full inclusion of LGBT people. Religion Link’s guide to same-sex marriage charts the various denominational stances on LGBT rites, as well as the forthcoming legislation around the subject of marriage equality.