"The church is really trying to sweep this under the rug and we're pretending we're all united, we're the United Methodist Church after all," says former Methodist minister Frank Schaefer on the division within the United Methodist Church (UMC) over the issue of homosexuality.
Schaefer says there was "no way in Hell" he would have declined when he was asked to ordain his son's same-sex wedding in 2007. "I saw it as an act of love," says Schaefer.
Others within the church saw it as an act of rebellion. Former Methodist Minister Frank Schaefer
Schaefer was stripped of his clerical credentials this past December after a 13-member jury of pastors found him guilty of disobeying church law. The UMC Book of Discipline, which contains the church's laws and doctrines, forbids celebrations of same-sex marriages and asserts that the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."
While Schaefer's defrocking may have been meant as a warning to silence rogue pastor's who disagree with the UMC Book of Discipline, it has arguably had the opposite effect: The church now faces a legitimate uprising by clergy members and laypeople within the denomination who passionately disagree with the church's stance on homosexuality. The internal debate has been waging since 1972 when the first language condemning homosexual practice was introduced in the Book of Discipline.
Schaefer is now an outspoken activist working to change Methodist policy on gay marriage. This movement within the UMC prompts the question: How do voluntary, private organizations change—or refuse to change— policies about matters that are central to their missions?
Religious practices change all the time—just ask Catholics who celebrated mass in Latin until the 1960s or Protestant groups that started ordaining women as ministers in the 1970s. But are there certain core beliefs that can never change?
Conservative theologians within the church argue that Schaefer's defrocking was justified because church law, by definition, must be upheld—otherwise, it is not a church law. They maintain that homosexuals are welcome in the church, but that one should abstain from the practice of homosexuality.
"The ultimate debate is not over sexuality—it's just one battle flag issue in the current culture wars that's been going on in the last 150 years between traditionalist and liberal revisionists," says Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Christian think-tank in Washington, D.C.UMC is experiencing a split in opinion on gay marriage
However, liberal theologians are a sizeable minority within the church and have been pushing back against the restrictive language every step of the way. Hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected the doctrine and, like Frank, some face punishment by trial for performing same-sex weddings.
Fellow mainline protestants have already moved toward accepting gay unions. These include the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church of America. However, the Methodist church seems to be going in the opposite direction. The margin of vote against changing the church's stance on homosexual unions was 61 to 39 percent at the 2012 General Conference, which meets every four years to vote on changes within the church. This was a wider disparity than in 2008.
The explanation has to do with the structure of the Methodist church. The UMC is very centralized—the General Conference makes rules for everything by way of a majority vote. This is very different from the other mainline denominations who operate as a loose federation of congregations with a shared tradition but not necessarily the same doctrine or rules. The loose federation allows the different congregations across the world more autonomy, a structure that has helped them maintain their unity even in the midst of disagreements on issues such as gay marriage.
Some UMC congregations believe gay marriage should be allowed in the ChurchCongregations in the UMC have less autonomy and a significant portion of the church lies outside of the U.S. While membership in the U.S. is declining, overseas branches are increasing—and these tend to be more conservative. The growing African Church has provided the votes at the General Conference to block any changes to the Book of Discipline liberalizing the stance on gay marriage.
"If the Church abandons its teaching on sexuality, there will in fact be a much deeper division and a formal schism," says Tooley.
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Produced by Amanda Winkler. Camera by Todd Krainin, Joshua Swain, and Winkler. Narrated by Todd Krainin.