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UMC live updates: United Methodists remove same-sex wedding ban – Tennessean

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The historic United Methodist Church legislative summit in Charlotte is on its last day, and a jam-packed agenda awaits the 700-plus delegates.

There are 25 outstanding calendar items, 16 of which require action by the UMC General Conference. Two of those are the final two LGBTQ+ inclusion-related petitions, one being a proposal to remove a ban on clergy and churches blessing same-sex unions. Equally significant is the budget approval process, requiring the delegates to vote on 20 reports containing specific budget proposals for the denomination’s seven general funds.  

The UMC General Conference, which is the denomination's top legislative assembly, gathers for its second and final week in Charlotte. This is the general conference in session on April 30, 2024 at the Charlotte Convention Center.

United Methodist leaders hoped the two-week event would be a moment of renewal, not just recovery from a splintering in which 7,500-plus U.S. churches left the UMC following disagreements over theology and church policy — including dealing with LGBTQ+ rights.

The general conference is showing day-by-day what that moment of renewal looks like with decisions to remove anti-LGBTQ+ restrictions and restructure the denomination’s system of regional oversight. Adding another layer of complexity to that picture, the pending budget approval process on Friday is expected to cement major funding cuts to the denomination’s general agencies and funding for bishops’ salaries.   

Follow along for live updates.

Yesterday’s UMC news:UMC live updates: United Methodists strike down 52-year-old statement on homosexuality and Christianity

United Methodists officially lift same-sex wedding ban in final blow to LGBTQ+ restrictions

The UMC General Conference lifted a 28-year-old prohibition on United Methodist clergy and churches blessing same-sex unions, the last major decision by the assembly to remove longstanding anti-LGBTQ+ restrictions.

A petition to remove what’s commonly understood as a ban on LGBTQ+ weddings received approval Friday. Earlier in the week, the assembly dismantled mechanisms for enforcing the wedding ban. Also, the assembly added a provision earlier in the week and Friday that allows clergy and churches not to bless same-sex unions according to their conscience.

Texas pastor Rev. John Stephens, who holds traditional views on marriage and sexuality, highlighted in a news conference Thursday the explicit protections for both those who choose to bless same-sex unions and who choose not to as an example of legislation that sought to accommodate conservatives and progressives alike.  

“No one is being penalized,” Stephens said in a news conference. “That means some of that work is going to be pushed down to the local church to make that decision and those are hard conversations.”

Ohio Bishop Rev. Tracy Smith Malone, the new president of the UMC Council of Bishops, echoed Stephens at a Thursday news conference, saying the UMC will need to equip bishops and other regional leaders to educate congregations about these policy changes.

“How do we have these conversations so that when these conversations are being had to respond to the question, ‘should we host a wedding?’ that it doesn’t tear a congregation apart,” Smith Malone said.

In addition to lifting the LGBTQ+ wedding ban Friday afternoon, the assembly approved a petition eliminating chargeable offenses for clergy who are a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” and who celebrate same-sex unions.

There were nearly 20 LGBTQ+ inclusion-related petitions the general conference voted on this week, some as part of a consent calendar and others on an individual basis. The delegates approved all of them.

New budget with an overall reduction of 38% to 41%

In one of the less contentious but more important decisions by this general conference, the United Methodist Church adopted a new budget for 2025-2028.

Unlike the previously approved budget in 2016 — the last time the general conference gathered for a regular session — the new budget is a range that will depend on the future collection rate, a formula that refers to the income the denomination’s general funds receive from conferences and churches.

The range of the total dollar amount of the new budget is $353.5 million to $373.4 million, a drastic reduction from the 2016 budget of $604 million. Compared to the 2016 budget, the new budget is a reduction of at least 38% and at most 41%, according to figures from the UMC General Commission on Administration & Finance.

United Methodist finance leaders initially proposed to this general conference a $353 million overall budget, or a 42% reduction from the 2016 budget. But delegates amended the proposal on Monday to allow for additional funding for the denomination’s seven general funds if the collection rate meets a certain threshold by the end of 2026.

Fewer total U.S. bishops, no new elections

In a critical decision for the United Methodist Church budget in response to mounting financial stress caused by disaffiliations, the assembly adopted a committee report Friday morning recommending a total of 32 U.S. bishops between 2025-2028.

The recommendation accounts for seven fewer bishops than the current total, though that decrease was already set to happen with several bishops retiring later this year. United Methodist finance officials have long said the denomination’s fund for bishops’ salaries is at risk of running a deficit.

The committee’s recommendation on Friday also calls for no new bishop elections when the five U.S. jurisdictional conferences — Western, Northeastern, North Central, Southeastern, South Central — gather for legislative assemblies in July. Of the 32 total U.S. bishops, the committee recommended a breakdown of nine bishops in the Southeastern, six in the Northeastern, six in North Central, six in South Central and five in Western.

While the number of U.S. bishops will decrease, the number of African bishops will increase following a decision by the general conference on Monday.

Budget approval process faces major cuts to seven general funds

There are different components to the United Methodist Church’s budget approval process, one of the most important is the reports for each of the denomination’s seven general funds. The general conference is set to vote on adopting those reports, among others, early Friday.

The current proposal to the UMC General Conference is a $353 million overall budget, a 42% decrease from the previously approved budget in 2016 — when the general conference met for its last regular session.

Within that total, here’s a breakdown of the proposed budgets for each of the denomination’s general funds and how it compares to the previous budget:

  • General Administration Fund, which covers general conference expenses and supports some UMC general agencies: $28.3 million — 26% reduction
  • Episcopal Fund, which covers bishops’ salaries: $82.6 million — 14% reduction.
  • World Service Fund, which supports many of the UMC general agencies: $158.2 million — 49% reduction
  • Ministerial Education Fund: $54.7 million — 48% reduction
  • Interdenominational Cooperation Fund: $2.2 million — 72% reduction
  • Black College Fund: $21.8 million — 48% reduction
  • Africa University Fund: $4.8 million — 42% reduction

The drastic cuts are largely due to the exodus of a quarter of total U.S. churches between 2019-2023 as part of the splintering in the denomination.

More:Here’s what a massive exodus is costing the United Methodist Church: Splinter explainer

Definition of marriage and regional differences clash, especially for Africa

The major tension for this UMC General Conference has been removing anti-LGBTQ+ restrictions without disregarding geographic differences, especially between the U.S.-based church and United Methodists in other countries where traditional views on sexuality and gender are the norm.

That dilemma over whether the United Methodist Church can still be a “big tent” came to the forefront on Thursday, when delegates debated and ultimately approved a new version of the UMC Revised Social Principles that contains a new definition of marriage.

The former language said marriage is “between a man and a woman.” Now the social principles state “we affirm marriage as a sacred lifelong covenant that brings two people of faith [adult man and woman of consenting age or two adult persons of consenting age] into union with one another.”

To traditionalist delegates from African countries, the new definition of marriage was a step too far. A group of five of those delegates staged a protest Thursday afternoon and denounced the new social principles in a news release.

“Western culture has changed,” said the news release, representing delegates from Liberia, East Congo, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. “We return to Africa with important decisions to make regarding the future.”

Accounting for the most members in a single geographic area in the church’s regional system of governance, Africa has been at the center of a feud between those who want more African churches to join the exodus out of the UMC versus United Methodist leaders who have sought a compromise to keep African churches in the denomination. That compromise came in the form of what is called regionalization, a plan to restructure the denomination to give each regional body across the world more independence. A constitutional amendment that this UMC General Conference passed now heads to the regional conferences to ratify.

“Regionalization will receive the vote for ratification. I am sure about that,” Nigerian pastor Rev. Ande Emmanuel, a general conference delegate and prominent centrist voice in the UMC, said in an interview Thursday. Emmanuel has become a prominent advocate before and during this UMC General Conference for regionalization and the new revised social principles.

Proponents of the new social principles say the new language is more “applicable” across different contexts. But Emmanuel also said many United Methodists throughout Africa who intend to stay in the UMC are less concerned with high-level policy and more with local church ministry.

“Regionalization and human sexuality, those are political,” Emmanuel said. “But when you go back to the grassroots, many people are not worried about this political debate, and they just want to come to church to worship God.”

Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media @liamsadams.

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