United Methodists have signalled a shift in their historic opposition to same-sex relationships after a denomination-wide leadership conference, the United Methodist News Service reports.
At its meeting in Maputo, Mozambique, the United Methodist Church's Connectional Table, a forum for discussion among national leaders of the world-wide body, affirmed a proposal to remove prohibitive language that makes it an offense under church law for clergy to be "self-avowed practising homosexuals" or to officiate at same-sex weddings.
It adopted the 'third way' in preference to leaving the rules as they were or opting for a fully inclusive approach, as some campaigners have demanded.
The approach would leave the question of whether to perform a same-sex marriage up to individual clergy. Clergy would not be required to bless same-sex unions. Conferences would have the option of ordaining openly gay individuals.
However, the proposal notes that the denomination "historically has not condoned the practice of homosexuality and has considered the practice incompatible with Christian teaching." It also retains the denomination's ban on using church funds "to promote the acceptance of homosexuality".
Any legislation adopted by the Connectional Table would go to the 2016 General Conference for a decision.
The Connectional Table's decision was reached after participants discussed the issue in small groups, and was aimed at preserving denominational unity while allowing national conferences freedom to act in accordance with their own convictions.
Rev Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, a district superintendent in the West Michigan Conference, said: "We've tried to allow some exercise of conscience, to allow for varying beliefs, to allow for varying practices within different contexts and to open a space for grace where people can live together in unity with their different beliefs."
While many North American United Methodists are in favour of allowing the celebration of same-sex relationships and the ordination of 'practising homosexuals', in many African countries the issue is regarded as closed.
At the Connectional Table meeting, Matthew "Theo" Williams of the Liberia Conference said: "In Africa, to even discuss the issue of gays or lesbians is taboo." He later told UMNS that because of church teachings, elders and deacons in Africa are not allowed to have more than one wife. "It is the same thing (about homosexuality), the missionaries told us the Bible says, 'One man, one wife.'"