Explainer: Is the United Methodist Church about to split over LGBT issues?

Rumour has it the United Methodist Church is headed towards division over LGBT equality disputes, and they're heartbroken.

Ministers hold the opening worship of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Oregon, on May 10, 2016.(United Methodist Church website)

"I have a broken heart, and collectively we have a broken heart. Our hearts break over pain, anger, disunity we observe and experience in our beloved United Methodist Church, and frankly, within our council,"  said the incoming president of the Council of Bishops, Bishop Bruce Ough.

The 40-year-old church has been experiencing increasing, conflicting pressure from different areas of its communion when it comes to issues of human sexuality.

Ahead of the General Conference meeting we are in now in the middle of, 111 United Methodist ministers came out as LGBT in a letter on May 9 to challenge the denomination's ban on "prasticing homosexuals". 

Late last night delegates at the meeting voted 428-364 for bishops to meet immediately to discuss and recommend to the conference how the church moves forward when it comes to human sexuality.

Where does UMC stand on homosexuality at the moment?

The UMC explicitly states that "homosexual persons no less than hetereosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth". It does not say that it is a sin to be gay. However, it sees the "practice of homosexuality [to be] incompatible with Christian teaching".

To be gay isn't a problem, but to have a gay relationship is.

If you are a "practising homosexual" you won't be able to be ordained or serve in the UMC and you won't be able to be married in a UMC church.

So, what's the dispute over?

The United Methodist Church has 12 million members, 7.2 million of whom live in the US.

As so often is the case when a denomination transcends more than one culture, the beliefs of members become increasingly disparate.

In the United States there is an increasingly liberal wing of the church developing that is keen to ordain LGBT clergy and allow same-sex weddings.

This couldn't be further from where the growing congregations in Africa stand on the issue. The UMC has far more conservative members in these congregations, many of whom live in countries where homosexuality is illegal.

"The whole United States will be a minority and the liberal parts of the United States will be a minority within a minority," Mark Tooley, of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, told the Washington Post.

Unity in the body when the members are seeking to go in apparently opposite directions is not simple, or pain free.

Why has this all come to a head now?

We are in the middle of a 10-day once-every-four-years meeting of the global denomination held in Portland, United States.

This is when a lot of big issues come to a head, naturally, as the whole communion comes together.

Ahead of this meeting, there has been increased activity in the pro-LGBT camp of the UMC.

In January, a Methodist minister in Kansas came out as a lesbian to her congregation in a sermon, sharing that she was in a relationship with another woman.

Another pastor who was disciplined by the church for officiating at his daughter's same-sex wedding, has been sleeping in a tent in protest.

In April 2016, Bishop Melvin Talbert and other pastors performed same-sex marriages publicly to stand in support of the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the church.

The Baltimore-Washington Conference appointed an openly gay woman in a lesbian relationship to the proivsional diaconate in February this year.

Demonstrations such as these have a long history...

In 1987 Methodist minister Rose Mary Denman was defrocked for being openly gay.

Defrocking is the technical punishment for practising homosexuality.

Similarly, in 2005, Irene Elizabeth Stroud was defrocked after she was convicted in a church trial of violating church law for having a lesbian relationship. 

So, where does this leave the UMC now?

With broken hearts, according to Bruce Ough.

A proposal to split the church was reported in a video post late on Monday evening to the Reconciling Ministries Network Facebook page. RMN is a Methodist group advocating for the full inclusion of LGBT members.

The video said a special meeting would be held in 2018 in which a "plan of separation will be moved forward".

Ough confirmed that legislation has been put forward, but that these reiterated that it was not decided upon.

The leadership is "not advancing or advocating any plan of separation or reorganisation of the denomination," he said in an unscheduled speech yesterday.

Five leaders, reportedly from across the ideological spectrum, are currently in a private meeting to discuss the issue of human sexuality.

This is not the first time the issue has raised its head, yet "what's different is, there is a certain level of candor and urgency that is evident," said Ough.

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