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Less Than United: the People of the United Methodist Church

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Every four years, elected lay and clergy delegates of the United Methodist Church (UMC) gather in a business meeting known as the General Conference. At the 2016 General Conference, a commission from the nearly 1000-person body requested the denomination’s guiding episcopal leadership, the Council of Bishops, to call an additional emergency meeting to directly address denominational disagreement over human sexuality. The bishops answered with the convening of the Special Session of the General Conference on February 23-26, 2019.

To put this in perspective, the only other time a non-quadrennial session of the General Conference took place was in 1970, two years after the forming of the UMC. Its charge was to finalize the 1968 merger of its antecedent denominations, the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren, a monumental moment in the UMC’s history Yet, whereas that meeting in 1970 pointed toward unity, the events of the 2019 session have pointed toward schism.

More Than a Vote

The UMC has debated its stance on human sexuality since the denomination’s beginnings. Since 1972, the denomination’s constitutional document, known as The Book of Discipline, has noted that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Discipline furthermore states that a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” person cannot hold the position of clergy or ministry candidate, nor can a UMC clergy officiate over a same-sex wedding.

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Richard Newton
Richard Newton
Richard Newton , PhD is an assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Dr. Newton's areas of interest include theory and method in the study of religion, African-American history, the New Testament in Western imagination, American cultural politics, and pedagogy in religious studies. His work has been published in the Journal of Biblical Literature and Method & Theory in the Study of Religion. His forthcoming book is titled Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures. Follow him on Twitter @seedpods and learn more about his work at

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