With Easter celebrations behind them, four U.S. Protestant denominations are about to plunge into a 9-week swirl of big decision-making on their unceasing and anguishing gay dispute. The actions will come less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage.
In the Reformed Church in America, 21 days of continent-wide fasting and prayers for wisdom will culminate in an April 15-18 “Special Council on Human Sexuality” in Chicago. The 74 delegates are assigned to devise “a constitutional pathway forward” that can manage the deep division over sexuality, for proposal to the General Synod June 9-14 in Palos Heights, Illinois. Though relatively small, the RCA is one of the oldest U.S. denominations, dating to 1628 in New Amsterdam (today’s New York City).
Next up is the May 10-20 General Conference of the large United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. The UMC has debated the question without letup since 1972, always upholding the belief that “the practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” while liberals regularly defy the required discipline of clergy living in homosexual relationships or who conduct ceremonies for same-sex couples.
An unusual aspect of the situation is that though the U.S. flock has declined dramatically to 7.2 million, the UMC includes overseas churches, mostly in Africa and mostly conservative, that now boast 5.2 million members. Legislation on the table includes a bid from the “Connectional Table,” an official coordination body, to replace the strict UMC-wide policy with local option.
The split is demonstrated by two pending cases. In rural Edgerton, Kansas, recently installed Pastor Cynthia Meyer, former assistant dean of students at the UMC’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, began 2016 by announcing that she is living with a lesbian partner. While Meyer continues to serve, the bishop is planning disciplinary action. Then clergy in the Baltimore-Washington unit will vote June 1 on whether to approve the ordination of T.C. Morrow, a married lesbian and member of Hillary Clinton’s Foundry Methodist Church -- even if the Portland conference decides otherwise.
The RCA’s more conservative sister denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (disclosure: the Religion Guy is a member of this flock) won’t be considering change in its traditionalist belief as defined in 1973 and 2002. But the June 10-17 Synod in Grand Rapids, Michigan, will debate a notably thorough and thoughtful 83-page report with “pastoral guidance” on all sorts of gay-related situations congregations now face. Some delegates will likely contend that the guidance is too flexible. Reporters should pay attention to voices from Calvin College.
Finally, the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly June 18-25, also meeting in Portland, will deal with the mop-up on two historic decisions. In 2011 the denomination voted to let partnered gay clergy and lay elders hold church office, followed by a 2014 redefinition of church marriage to include same-sex couples.
In order to limit a conservative schism (the third one in recent decades), the PCUSA promised to respect the belief of conservatives if they didn’t quit. But the New York City unit now wants the denomination to apologize and profess that the pre-2011 belief was “erroneous” and in fact “sinful.” A pro-gay retired seminary president, Barbara Wheeler, protests that such condemnation of “deeply-held beliefs” would be “a breach of faith” that breaks many past promises and violates minority conservatives' “freedom of conscience.”