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February 10, 2014

Methodists in crisis over gay marriage, church law

(Continued)

He called the weddings "an act of biblical obedience" to the teaching that all people are created in God's image. Dorothee Benz, of Methodists in New Directions, a New York advocacy group spearheading the gay marriage drive, said, "that language of biblical obedience became a messaging touchstone."

The situation for United Methodists stands out because their fellow mainline Protestants have moved toward accepting gay relationships. The United Church of Christ began ordaining people with same-sex partners in the 1970s, and by 2005, had endorsed gay marriage. In 2003, the Episcopal Church elected the first bishop living openly with a same-sex partner, Bishop Gene Robinson. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have both struck down barriers to ordaining gays and lesbians. United Methodists are the second-largest U.S. Protestant group and have about 12.5 million members worldwide.

Demographics largely explain why the Methodists have maintained their marriage stance. The church, which once had a presence in nearly every county in the U.S., has become "more red state-y than it ever was," said David Steinmetz, a specialist in Christian history and retired professor at Duke Divinity School. Sandwiched between the liberal-leaning Northeast and Western districts are the more theologically conservative Methodist conferences, which tend to have larger and faster-growing congregations. Reconciling Ministries Network took on the geographic challenge last fall by adopting a new Southern outreach strategy.

Boosting the theologically conservative numbers are the burgeoning Methodist churches overseas, where the predominant views are traditional. At the next General Conference in 2016, the share of delegates from U.S. will drop to about 58 percent, while the contingent from Africa will rise to 30 percent, according to United Methodist News Service. Most U.S. Protestant denominations belong to some kind of international fellowship, but largely set their own policies at home. Methodists are the rare mainline group structured to give overseas members a direct say.

"The church is already partly in schism. You've got bishops not obeying the law of the church. You have pastors not obeying the law of the church," Steinmetz said. "How long can they live with two mindsets? I just don't know."

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