ST. LOUIS • Where you have two members of the United Methodist Church, you have three opinions and a potluck, the saying goes.
Or, put differently, if everyone in church agrees about everything, it cannot be United Methodist.
But the “big tent” of ideological diversity that the 12.6 million-member global denomination has celebrated is being challenged as never before over sexuality and may lead to fracture.
A special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church runs here from Saturday to Tuesday at America’s Center downtown. The topic is how to move forward on the issue of homosexuality.
Four thousand people, including 864 voting delegates from around the world, have registered. Thousands more are expected to watch multiple plans, none of which is likely to satisfy everyone, be debated.
By the end, some congregations may seek a new home.
The uproar boils down to this line in the denomination’s Book of Discipline: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Officially, United Methodist pastors aren’t supposed to preside over same-sex marriages and, although gay and lesbian clergy can be ordained, they must be celibate.
Still, some ministers, for instance on the West Coast, have been progressive without challenge, while others in different districts have been taken to church trial, even defrocked, over issues of sexuality.
“The United Methodist Church, it’s really one of the most diverse Protestant denominations, in terms of conservative and liberal perspectives,” said Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University. “They have managed to really hold together in ways that a lot of denominations have not.”
But, as she explores in her book, “Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics,” published in 2017, divisions over sexuality run deepest in church settings.
United Methodists aren’t immune.
“They are trying to hold everyone together, and ultimately some difficult choices are going to have to be made, because the issues are too important on all sides,” she said.
As with Episcopalian and Presbyterian denominations before them in recent history, there are United Methodist adherents who fervently believe that the definition of marriage needs to expand. There are other equally committed members of the flock who say there is a baseline standard that was given centuries ago and to shift now would fundamentally alter what it means to be married in a Christian way.
The Rev. Matt Miofsky, of the St. Louis area, leads one of the fastest growing United Methodist churches in the country, The Gathering, which is inclusive.
ST. LOUIS • It takes only a few minutes to figure out this is not going to be a typical Methodist church service.
“We are called to be passionate about Jesus, committed to the whole of Scripture, eager to share life in Christ with all people,” Miofsky wrote online in an open letter to United Methodists. “We are also called to a robust, bold and unapologetic invitation to queer people to be fully active at all levels in our churches. These two are not contradictory, they are not mutually exclusive, and they do not represent a compromise of any strong belief in God, Scripture or Christ.”
This week, he declined to comment through a staff member, who said Miosky was preparing for the special session. The Rev. Shane Bishop, who leads Fairview Heights-based Christ Church, the largest United Methodist church in Illinois, was also guarded.
“Our denomination is addressing internal challenges by our own processes,” Bishop, a global board member of the traditional leaning Wesleyan Covenant Association, said in prepared remarks. “The General Conference is in our prayers.”
Differing views on homosexuality in the church have been brewing since shortly after the church formed by merger in 1968. But more recent general conferences, which meet every four years, have become both solemn and raucous over the issue.
In 2004, a pastor smashed a Communion chalice, a symbol of unity, over the lack of inclusion of LGBTQ people. In 2012, protesters took the floor over the church’s decision not to change spiritual teaching on sexuality.
Though the church is rooted in the United States, most of the growth is now in the developing world.
“Our African delegates, they shake their heads and say, ‘All you Americans want to talk about is sex,’ ” said the Rev. Bob Phillips, a delegate from Elsah, who leans traditional. “They say, ‘Isn’t there more to a church than that?’ They are dealing with issues of Ebola, health, war and neighbors who may not be terribly friendly. Those are the kinds of issues that they wish to see the faith address.”
A few years ago, church leaders decided that the special session would be held just to address sexuality. A 32-member Commission on a Way Forward had been formed to study options. The Rev. Jessica LaGrone, who was on the commission, said in a recent podcast that the meetings were friendly, but nobody changed their minds about certain “musts” they view for the church.
“That, to me, made it very clear,” said LaGrone, dean of the chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. “We’ve got to have a lot of space between us. We may not be able to be in the same denomination because of our lists of things that we believe to be true.”
The commission came up with three main options.
• Remain traditional on the definition of marriage.
• Allow each congregation and pastor to choose.
• Keep everyone under the same United Methodist big tent but have three different rooms inside based on an individual church’s traditional, progressive or centrist view of sexuality.
The Council of Bishops, which is the top spiritual leader of the denomination, supports the “one-church” model, that would allow each congregation and pastor to choose.
“It honors the mission that a local church is undertaking where God has planted it,” Bishop Kenneth Carter, president of the council, said in a promotional video. “And if there is a consensus about something as complex as human sexuality, relationships with LGBTQ persons, if there is a consensus, we honor that church to work out that consensus.”
The council does not have a vote at the conference — the 864 delegates do. Twelve of them are from Missouri.
“Here in Missouri, we are interested in remaining in spiritual community despite our theological differences,” said the Rev. Kim Jenne, spokeswoman for the regional body of 780 United Methodist congregations in the Show-Me State.
“We are not interested in debating the issue of what Scripture says or doesn’t say about sexuality, but we are interested in remaining in relationship with one another. And sometimes that’s hard. It’s hard to be in community with people you don’t agree with all the time, but we believe that God calls us to that work.”