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United Methodist Church begins reorganization over LGBTQ+ issues

United Methodists from around the world meeting at their General Conference in Charlotte, N.C., have voted on steps that could end the church's ban on LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex weddings.

The proposal, called regionalization, essentially would allow different geographic regions — North America, Europe, Africa, and the Philippines — to make their own rules about ministry.

One of the architects of the plan, Rev. Dee Stickley-Minor, said she looks forward to being part of a denomination in which the United States isn't the center of gravity.

"I celebrate that this is a beginning of a new way of being a worldwide church," she said, "where our voices are actually heard, and we can begin to listen to one another in new ways."

By reorganizing the United Methodist Church in this way, it's far more likely that its ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ clergy could be lifted in the U.S while allowing churches elsewhere to make their own rules.

Bishop Tracy Smith Malone, the incoming president of United Methodist Council of Bishops, said the vote sends a clear signal that the United Methodist Church is ready to embrace a new way forward.

"Yes, it decenters the U.S., but it also dismantles colonialism, giving us sense of agency, a sense of autonomy while still keeping us connected missionally," she said.

Malone describes the regionalization plan as keeping the church "one body" but with a variety of expressions around the world.

A big concern in recent years has been how there appears to be a will to lift bans on LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriage in the U.S, but that sentiment is not widespread in other parts of the world, especially in Africa.

Rev. Emmanuel Sinzohagera of the United Methodist Church's Burundi Conference said he is pleased with this reorganization plan.

"What matters in Africa may not necessarily matters to you, to the U.S. church, and what matters to you as church may not necessarily matter to the African Church," he said.

The regionalization plan passed with 78% of the vote but still needs to be ratified by local annual conferences. They'll take up the measure in the coming year.

Meanwhile, separate proposals to remove restrictive language about LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex weddings globally are on the agenda next week for this United Methodist General Conference. But the regionalization vote could make those proposals less contentious and perhaps less likely to pass.

Despite there being official bans on LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex weddings, many local geographic conferences of the church — especially in the U.S. — choose not to enforce them.

Many congregations, displeased at that non-enforcement, chose to leave the denomination, which is the second largest Protestant one in the U.S. Some became independent congregations while others joined a more conservative moment called the Global Methodist Church.

The deadline for "disaffiliating," as it was called, from the United Methodist Church was last December. More than 7,600 — about one quarter — of its congregations voted to leave. With the most conservative congregations gone, the path forward became clearer.

Bishop Tracy Smith Malone says she was overjoyed to be presiding at Thursday's regionalization vote, which comes after years of strife within the denomination. "I had to contain myself," she said, smiling broadly. "We get to be the workers in the vineyard, but this is God's vision."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.