The Methodists’ same-sex marriage vote was conclusive. So why is it dividing the church?

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Image credit: Barry West

Methodists in Britain are bewildered, ecstatic or sad at its recent decision to allow same-sex marriage in church.

The Rev Sonia Hicks, president of the Methodist Conference, was reflecting on the fallout after the vote, which was passed by 254 in favour with 46 against, a larger majority than expected.

She told a Religion Media Centre briefing that the way forward was to work out how people with different views could remain in the same church. She said the church had always had contradictory convictions “but I don’t see why this should be the one that particularly breaks us”.

In America, the issue of same-sex marriage is threatening to split the United Methodist Church, with a breakaway Global Methodist Church organised and waiting to depart whatever the final vote, expected next year.

The Rev Dr Rob Vaughn, who teaches for the United Methodists, specialising in sexual ethics, told the briefing that this issue was the tip of the iceberg for traditionalists who had formed the breakaway group.

He said they had “historically always sought to find a way to separate for a host of reasons beyond sexuality and sexuality seems to be … symptomatic of some other very deeper theological concerns”.

But “you don’t just break up a family easily”, he added, and the church must find a way of allowing people to depart with a blessing. He said many people were in the middle and wanted to remain Methodists while holding misgivings about the move towards same-sex marriage.

Although the vote in Britain was larger than people had expected, the split indicates that one-sixth of the 164,000 Methodist church members were against.

The Rev Dr David Hull, chairman of Methodist Evangelicals Together, now runs an independent Free Methodist Church and is still a minister in full connection with the British Methodist church. He told the briefing that there were tens of thousands of Methodists who were very unhappy with the decisions the conference had taken.

He said a line had been crossed in the vote, which went against the “overwhelming consistency” of Methodist understanding that “marriage is the lifelong union of one man, one woman, to the exclusion of all others, and the only appropriate and context for sexual intimacy”.

He said thousands of Methodists found themselves in a difficult position and standing alone. When it came to being in a church that held both positions: “Either one is true or the other is true, but we cannot affirm them both.”

He confirmed that the evangelicals had been talking to the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which is behind the Global Methodist Church, and were present at its launch. “We have not had any negotiations with them. But we have fellowship with them,” he said.

The Rev Ashley Cooper, principal of the Methodist Cliff College, which is rooted in traditional evangelicalism, believes that marriage is between one woman and one man, but he voted in favour of allowing same-sex marriage.

For him the issue was not doctrinal, but one of order within the church and he had fought hard to insist: “We’re stronger for the gospel together if we can find a way of living with difference, because we disagree on all kinds of things. Why is this the one that we’re going to split over?”

He had since received many emails and messages disappointed that he remained a Methodist member and that he was not declaring independence. But he believed it was right to work together to provide a new way forward and to live together despite the differences.

He was deeply concerned about the relationships within the evangelical wing of the church and believed there must be a way of providing unity and healing.

The Rev Sam Sam McBratney, research and partnerships officer at the Susanna Wesley Foundation, Roehampton University, said the church had conducted a constant conversation on issues around marriage and relationships, between culture and theology. In the 19th century, the church refused to let ministers take part in marriage ceremonies, believing there must be a complete separation of church and state. Last century, it was the first church to allow remarriage of divorcees.

But the conversation about sexuality started 42 years ago and the church had been among the first to offer a theological reflection on the changes in society. Now it found itself the 12th Methodist church in the world to be taking the step towards affirming same-sex marriage, as the debate has continued for so long.

However, Dave Nuckols, lay leader for the Minnesota Annual Conference in the United Methodist Church, commended the British church for its process.

In the United States, he said, they were dealing with the issue of gay ordination as well as same-sex marriage. Unlike the British church, which had laboured for many years ending with a churchwide consultation, in America the general conference of up to 1,000 people took major decisions every four years. This had “tended to proceed as a series of high-stakes votes”.

His observation was that the debate involved a discussion of biblical interpretation, church rules and mission — what kind of message does the church wish to give the world? — which for him was the key.

Rachel Lampard, a former vice-president of the Methodist Conference, agreed that the future of the church was in evangelism and social justice. The issue was not just about same-sex marriage, but “what a Christ like relationship, intimate relationship, looks like. Self-giving love, commitment, fidelity, loyalty, honesty, mutual respect, equality, and the desire for mutual flourishing.”

Finally, Phoebe Perkins, the Methodist youth president, appealed to the church not to assume belief based on age or background, but to offer pastoral care for everyone who finds this discussion a difficult path.

View the briefing on our YouTube channel here

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