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(RNS) — The last time the United Methodist Church met for its General Conference, in 2019, there were only seven self-identifying LGBTQ delegates. When the denomination convenes later this month, there will be 26 — enough to form a caucus, which is exactly what they’ve done.

The first-ever United Methodist Queer Delegate Caucus will be among the more visible changes when the denomination’s top legislative body convenes April 23-May 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Though the caucus can only be unofficial in a denomination that still views homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” it is organized and ready for the spotlight. It has a website, it plans on convening news conferences and it has already ordered T-shirts and pins.

After a four-year COVID-19 delay, and the departure of about 25% of its U.S. churches, the United Methodist Church is meeting again and the issue of human sexuality is back on the agenda.

The LGBTQ delegates are championing a raft of petitions they hope will eventually lead the U.S. church to extend them greater equality.

“Queer folks have been bearing the weight of the division and the discrimination in this denomination for close to 50 years,” said the Rev. Becca Girrell, pastor of a church in Morrisville, Vermont, and a member of the queer delegate caucus. “And that’s just not a tenable weight to carry any longer for most folks.”

Helen Ryde. (Courtesy photo)

Helen Ryde. (Courtesy photo)

But for this conference, the goals of the caucus are more modest. They include the removal of  contested passages from the denomination’s rulebook, the Book of Discipline, that restrict LGBTQ members from ordination and marriage. The caucus is not calling for new definitions or expressions.

“We’re not seeking at this point to add any affirming language,” said Helen Ryde, a regional organizer with the Reconciling Ministries Network who serves on the caucus’s 10-person steering committee. “This is getting us to neutral. It’s getting us to a level playing field where there’s nothing bad in there. This is not the year to be trying to do any more than that.”

Among those passages in the Book of Discipline is the incompatibility clause that says the denomination “does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” There are also passages defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman as well as passages banning the ordination of gay clergy and prohibiting clergy from conducting ceremonies that celebrate same-sex weddings or unions on church property.

The treatment of LGBTQ Christians has torn apart many Protestant denominations but it has plagued the United Methodist Church longer and has led to a deeper rupture.

In 2019, 53% of General Conference delegates voted to tighten the ban on same-sex marriage. But a year later, seeing that more openly gay and lesbian people were getting ordained and married in the church in defiance of the rules (the church now has two openly gay bishops), a traditionalist faction pressed for a separation agreement.

That agreement gave U.S. congregations a four-year window ending in 2023 to leave over “reasons of conscience” and take their property and assets with them. About 7,600 U.S.-based churches left — a loss accounting for 25% of all its U.S. congregations. A little more than half have chosen to affiliate with a splinter group, the Global Methodist Church, which was formed in 2022 as a more theologically conservative alternative.


RELATED: The UMC lost a quarter of its churches — most in the South


With many of those more theologically conservative churches no longer attending General Conference, the queer caucus, along with many of its allies in progressive and centrist circles, is hopeful that change is finally within reach.

Imagery from the United Methodist Queer Delegate Caucus website. (Screen grab)

Imagery from the United Methodist Queer Delegate Caucus website. (Screen grab)

“Those remaining have a much more generous and expansive understanding of what the body of Christ looks like,” said Bishop Karen Oliveto, who oversees some 300 churches in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho and is one of two gay bishops in the denomination.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be opposition to removing restrictive LGBTQ passages from the rulebook. The United Methodist Church is a global denomination and many delegates from Africa and Asia will likely resist any changes to the human sexuality clauses.

For that reason, the caucus supports another proposal before the General Conference to restructure the United Methodist Church worldwide to give overseas regions of the church greater equity and allow them to tailor their own customs and traditions to meet local needs. That plan is called regionalization.

If it passes — a yearslong process that will require ratification in each region — Methodists in Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the United States would each be able to customize the Book of Discipline on questions of human sexuality and other nondoctrinal issues.

Members of the new queer caucus say the very act of organizing has renewed their commitment to the denomination.

“It’s been incredible to be in community with other queer delegates who love Jesus, are committed to the gospel and the work of the church and believe that the United Methodist Church can be a home for all, but especially our queer siblings in the faith,” said Derrick Scott III, a 43-year-old gay man who is active in the new caucus and serves as co-lay leader of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Methodists have resorted to caucuses to advocate for various causes throughout their history. In the 19th century, abolitionists opposed to slavery formed an unofficial caucus. Later, women advocating for the right to preach and be ordained formed caucuses. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s saw a surge in the number of caucuses. Several ethnic and racial caucuses have been formally recognized and therefore eligible for church funding. They include Black Methodists for Church Renewal; MARCHA, a Hispanic Methodist caucus; as well as Native American, Asian American and Pacific Islander caucuses.

“Caucuses have generally been a way for people on the ground to have their voices known and heard at General Conference,” said Ashley Boggan, secretary of the denomination’s General Commission on Archives and History.

While there is also an LGBTQ clergy caucus, there has never been a queer caucus consisting of voting delegates to the General Conference, both clergy and lay.

“There have been openly gay delegates for a long time but never really enough for them to come together and say, OK, we’re a thing,” said Ryde. “So the difference is there is enough of us to get together and organize and be a presence and be visible.”

It’s been 52 years since the clause saying homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” was adopted, and many queer Methodists are hoping 2024 is when it might finally succumb.

“I really, really hope that when it happens, it is experienced as a bit of a nonevent in some parts of the United Methodist Church,” said Scott. “I don’t think that it is the end of any kind of evangelical influence within the United Methodist Church or commitment to historic beliefs. I think it’s just our church saying that LGBTQ+ individuals are children of God and persons of worth who are invited to be a part of the full life and ministry of the United Methodist Church.”


RELATED: Legislation aims to ‘decolonize’ United Methodists, give parity to non-US conferences


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