United Methodists redefine marriage, end official condemnation of homosexuality

By Yonat Shimron
Posted May 3, 2024

[Religion News Service — Charlotte, North Carolina] United Methodist delegates adopted a revised definition of marriage on May 2 at their quadrennial meeting called the General Conference and deleted from their rule book a condemnation of homosexuality that has riven the denomination for 52 years.

The afternoon actions on the floor of the Charlotte Convention Center further secure a transformational change in the nation’s second-largest Protestant group — one that embraces the full equality of LGBTQ members in every aspect of church life.

While some African and U.S. delegates rallied outside the convention center against the new definition of marriage, which they contended is contrary to Scripture, the vast majority of delegates voted 523-161, or more than 3-to-1, to accept the changes to the rule book, known as the Book of Discipline.

The actions followed passage of several other measures earlier this week that overwhelmingly overturned a ban on the ordination of gay clergy and eliminated penalties for pastors who officiate at same-sex weddings.

The condemnatory passage in its Book of Discipline that says the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” which was added to the Book of Discipline in 1972, was scrapped. The passage had caused great pain to its LGBTQ members and allies over the years. Delegates agreed to drop it without any discussion.

But delegates spent more than an hour debating and refining the definition of marriage. A Zimbabwean delegate, Molly Mwayra, proposed an amendment to the definition of marriage that acknowledged that marriage is a union between a man and woman but adds that it can also be a union between “two adult persons of consenting age.”

That revision was overwhelmingly agreed to by delegates as a way to accommodate Methodists in Africa.

“I just thought it was a beautiful example of someone trying to bridge cultures and make space for everyone to be included,” said Randall Miller, who chaired the denominational task force charged with revising the denomination’s statements about social principles.

Homosexuality is illegal, indeed a crime, in more than two dozen African countries. Many African United Methodists wanted a definition of marriage that does not put them in crosshairs of national laws. They are also trying to fight the plague of child marriage; hence the wording about “consenting age.”

The broader, more inclusive definition seemed to meet that need. The revised social principles adopted by delegates also include sections rejecting child marriage and polygamy and supporting consent in sexual relationships.

“Our goal was to create a church in which everyone is respected and every voice is heard,” said the Rev. Ande Emmanuel, a Nigerian pastor who was a member of the social principles task force. “Africa is a different reality. America is a different reality. In this document, we try as much as possible to find common ground.”

After the vote, a group of more than 100 delegates and observers called a meeting outside the convention center bemoaning the changed definitions.

“We do not accept a change in the definition of marriage, and we will never accept marriage as anything other than one man and one woman, no matter what the Book of Discipline says,” said their leader, the Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia. “We are devastated now to be part of a denomination that officially contradicts the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexual morality.”

Kulah has for months been suggesting that some African churches will leave the denomination.

In concert with several traditional United Methodist advocacy groups, such as Good News Magazine and the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Kulah has been advocating for a policy that would allow churches to leave the denomination.

So far, they have been unsuccessful. The General Conference on Wednesday voted to eliminate the pathway to disaffiliation that was created in 2019. In another motion, it directed annual conferences to develop policies for inviting disaffiliated churches to return to the fold, if they wish.

The denominational meeting concludes May 3.