As spirit-filled protests and demonstrations of support for LGBTQI people fill the halls of the United Methodist Church's General Conference in Portland, the Council of Bishops that serves the denomination has put forward a historic proposal that will be considered by the gathered delegates before the Conference ends on May 20.
The United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline currently bans same-sex marriages and non-celibate gay clergy.
In addition, a 1972 motion declares that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." Changes to the denomination's Book of Discipline are considered every four years by delegates from around the world at General Conference. In 2012, proposed changes to these anti-LGBTQI policies were voted down by the gathered delegates.
In anticipation of this year's gathering, 111 United Methodist clergy and faith leaders came out as LGBTQI to their denomination, writing a courageous "love letter" to their church that spoke of their call to serve in ministry and their commitment to remaining in covenant with their denomination.
Three days later, 500 LGBTQI Christian leaders from contexts across the United States and the world published a letter of solidarity, offering support for their Methodist siblings as well as prayers for inclusion and justice within the United Methodist Church. Four days later, 1,500 United Methodist clergy and 1,100 religious leaders from across faith traditions pledged support as allies for their LGBTQI colleagues in ministry.
Now, nearly 5,000 United Methodist lay members have also pledged support for LGBTQI clergy serving in their denomination.
Tension has grown since the 2012 General Conference as LGBTQI people have come out to their faith communities and shared their stories of pain, exclusion, and spiritual harm at the hands of the United Methodist Church. Allies to LGBTQI people have risked their ordination credentials by performing same-sex marriages. In 2013, Rev. Frank Schaefer was convicted and defrocked by the denomination for officiating the wedding of his son, Tim, to his same-sex partner.
In an unprecedented move, the delegates gathered at this year's General Conference sought guidance from the Council of Bishops, a body of clergy that is elected to serve as spiritual leaders for the denomination. The Council of Bishops attend and preside over General Conference, "but [they] do not vote and cannot speak without permission from the delegates."
In response to rumors of splits within the denomination, today's statement from the Council of Bishops calls for unity that would allow a "variety of expressions to co-exist in one church."
The bishops also suggest that delegates "defer all votes on human sexuality and refer this entire subject to a special Commission, named by the Council of Bishops, to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality."
The statement mentions but stops short of suggesting measures to protect LGBTQ people and allies from discipline during the proposed process of discernment.
In addition, LGBTQI people and allies continue to push leaders and delegates at General Conference to remember that the debates at hand are not about an issue, but rather, are about the people who are most impacted by the denomination's anti-LGBTQI policies.
While today's statement from the Council of Bishops suggests that the United Methodist Church is hearing the stories and experiences of LGBTQI people, it remains unclear whether delegates will overturn their denomination's exclusionary policies before the end of this year's General Conference.
UPDATE (5/19/16): Delegates voted in favor of the Bishops' proposal to create a commission to examine the Book of Discipline's stance on "human sexuality." The timeline of the commission's report remains unclear. Read Reconciling Ministries Network's statement in response.
Photo via Reconciling Ministries Network