Will Methodists’ decision on ordaining ‘practicing homosexuals’ hurt dialogue with Catholics?

(OSV News) — On May 1, the United Methodist Church — a global, U.S.-based Protestant denomination — announced the reversal of what its leadership termed “one of the sources of heated, often painful dispute” among members of the denomination: Without debate, the UMC’s top legislative body, the General Conference, lifted the former 1984 ban on ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”

The vote among delegates at the 2024 UMC General Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina — who afterward applauded — was 692-51, with 93% approval.

Catholic observers not involved with ecumenical matters might have only noted the news in passing, while registering a significant doctrinal distance.

In 2005, the Vatican stated that — “while profoundly respecting the persons in question” — the Catholic Church “cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’” The same prohibition for seminary candidates was declared earlier, in 1961.

Impact on Catholic-Methodist dialogue

What then, is the potential impact of the UMC’s 2024 General Conference decision on the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the United Methodist Church — a dialogue that dates to 1966?

Since the Catholic Church’s doctrine prohibiting openly LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriage remains steadfast, will common ground still be found?

“Our dicastery does not have any comment to make about the recent changes to the discipline of the United Methodist Church,” said Benedictine Father Martin Browne, an official in the Western Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.

“I would simply point out that our decades-long dialogue with the World Methodist Council, of which the UMC is one member church among 80, continues unaffected,” he said.

His predecessor, Father Anthony Currer — who was on staff at what is now the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity from 2013-2022, served as co-secretary to the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission, and is currently pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Darlington, England — agreed.

“It’s important to keep talking — and that we keep talking about the things that we are coming to different conclusions about, to try and hear why the other is reaching that conclusion,” Father Currer told OSV News.

Common ground and collaboration

“We in the Catholic Church, of course, are thinking very seriously about the way in which we accompany the LGBT+ community, and how we can best hear their voices, and help them know the Lord’s love,” he added. “We’re engaged in a very similar ministry, even if we’re at different places about what we think is right and proper in terms of teaching.”

Examining those differences, Father Currer noted, strengthens the authenticity of ecumenical dialogue.

“We have to be able to be honest with one another. We have reached a level of maturity in the ecumenical dialogue where we know that we have to do that. If it’s kind of too polite, then it’s not meaningful. We have to be able to share honestly,” he observed. “Sure, this decision is a challenge — and it doesn’t make dialogue easier; it doesn’t make unity look any closer. It’s not something we can celebrate, because it’s brought a division in the UMC, which I know is a very painful one for many UMC friends.”

“But,” reflected Father Currer, “we continue to talk.”

“The United Methodist Church and the Catholic Church have been in dialogue for 50 years,” Bishop Sally Dyck, the UMC’s ecumenical officer, told OSV News. “As with most, if not all, ecumenical and interreligious work and witness, we identify together those theological and ministry or mission practices that we hold in common and focus on them. Presently we are engaged in a dialogue on baptism and migration with the Catholic Church.”

Bishop Dyck was optimistic conversations would carry on.

“We have, and I would hope to continue, our common ministry and mission together in such areas as immigration/migration, anti-poverty, anti-racism, creation care and other social witnesses that we have worked together (on) for a long time in our communities and in our nations,” she said.

The most recent round of United Methodist-Catholic dialogue began in 2015 and concluded in 2020, producing a two-part document exploring common beliefs, as well as shared prayer and resources.

Division and future directions

As of 2022, the United Methodist Church counted 5,424,175 members and 29,746 churches in America — a number that has declined since a 2020 open split pivoting on issues of same-sex marriage and sexual orientation. By 2023, 7,660 — or approximately one-quarter — of UMC churches in the U.S. had been approved for disaffiliation.

Additional decisions made by the 2024 UMC General Conference are unlikely to heal divisions.

Long-standing rules prohibiting clergy from officiating same-sex weddings — or churches from hosting them — also were overturned, and several constraints on ministry with and by people who identify as gay were removed.

While another vote ended a policy those 7,000-plus congregations earlier used to leave the UMC fold, it nonetheless left the door open for their return.

However, the Global Methodist Church — a traditionalist Methodist denomination of 4,501 churches and congregations formed in 2022 by disaffected UMC leaders — quickly distanced itself from the May 1 General Conference outcome, issuing its own same-day statement declaring it “operates independently from The United Methodist Church and therefore, we do not have any affiliation with their decisions, nor do we wish to comment.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also declined to comment.

“At least up until recently, there’s been a huge cognitive dissonance between the laity of the (United Methodist) Church, versus those in leadership,” said Keith Nester, a former Protestant pastor and youth pastor who converted from the UMC to Catholicism. “There was a huge divide there — and ultimately, those that were on the more conservative side have left the denomination, which has left the more liberal folks a green light to change everything.”

Nester — who wrote “The Convert’s Guide to Roman Catholicism: Your First Year in the Church” and directs Down to Earth Ministry, a teaching ministry seeking “to communicate the truths of the Catholic faith” — added, “It will be interesting to see what they choose to do now, moving forward, because they have been so preoccupied and defined with making this change.”

Nester said he believes the UMC’s decision dispenses with a former area of agreement.

“The (United) Methodist Church basically has hardlined a position that is 100% contrary to the Catholic Church. Before that, the language and the discipline was very similar around the issue of human sexuality, to what the Catechism (of the Catholic Church) says,” he emphasized. “There was a lot of commonality there. Well, now that’s gone.”

Justus Hunter — a Methodist convert to Catholicism and associate professor of church history at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio — concurred.

“This United Methodist General Conference presents new hurdles to Catholic-Methodist dialogue,” said Hunter.

“The General Conference’s decisions related to human sexuality distance it from Catholic doctrine, while drawing the UMC closer to other mainline denominations,” he explained. “Surely areas for collaboration will remain in the future — but there are major questions about what they will be and how they might be pursued.”

“In fact,” Hunter reflected, “the UMC’s recent change of policy on marriage and ordination are an extension of a more fundamental question that will be determinative for the future of the UMC: Is this a move toward a uniformly progressive church, or yet another attempt to build a UMC whose members disagree on fundamental matters?”

“On that more fundamental question, the legislation related to regionalization — whereby regional bodies of United Methodists make their own determinations on social matters — will be important to follow,” advised Hunter. “Catholic ecumenists engaged in dialogue with the UMC will probably have to sit back and see how things develop along these lines before it’s clear whether and what the path forward will be.”

This post Will Methodists’ decision on ordaining ‘practicing homosexuals’ hurt dialogue with Catholics? appeared on Our Sunday Visitor.

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