The United Methodist Church has voted to reject a proposal to allow local churches to perform same-sex weddings and hire openly LGBT clergy, a move that church leaders said will almost surely lead more liberal members to leave the mainline denomination.
The move was pitched by proponents as a way to keep the increasingly fractious denomination together amid widespread disagreements about scripture and the morality of same-sex relationships.
“Many of us have members who are saying they will leave,” said the Rev. Tom Berlin of Virginia, a member of the church’s legislative committee. “A virus of conflict will spread.”
The home church of both Hillary Clinton and Jeff Sessions, as well as an increasingly large number of Africans and Asians, the United Methodist Church has about 12.5 million members worldwide, including almost 7 million in the United States.
While United Methodists will continue to meet for a special session of their General Conference in St. Louis on Tuesday, measures to permit more leniency on LGBT issues do not appear to have enough support to pass. About 800 delegates have been attending the 3-day conference.
Tuesday morning’s vote to reject the “One Church” plan, which had support among United Methodist bishops in the United States, was 449 to 374.
Instead, United Methodists in St. Louis voted to push forward the “Traditional” plan, which would discipline clergy and churches who defied the church’s stance on same-sex relationships.
Under the “Traditional” plan, as currently constituted, churches and clergy would have to affirm the church’s stance against gay marriage and non-celibate LGBT clergy by 2021 or face removal from the denomination.
The United Methodist delegates are expected to vote on that plan later on Tuesday.
Several members from African nations stood on Tuesday to support the “Traditional” plan, saying it accords with scripture’s teachings on sexuality.
“Today the church in Africa is growing in leaps and bounds because we are committed to biblical Christianity,” said the Rev. Jerry Kulah, who is from Liberia. “You cannot be performing Christianity differently in America and Africa and suggest that we are one church.”
Several young Americans, on the other plan, pleaded to have their voices heard.
Shayla Jordan, a 21-year-old delegate from the church’s Kansas-based Great Plains Conference, said 15,000 young United Methodists had signed a petition opposing the “Traditional” plan.
“We need a church that is still alive. This is our church, too, and I have thousands of people with me urging you to hear this call,” Jordan said.
Cara Nicklas, a delegate from Oklahoma, said that she’s received numerous messages from people calling her support for the church’s current stance on LGBT relationships “mean-spirited and unloving.”
“Surely you don’t want to be united with me if I am as mean and unloving as you say,” she said. “You will not stop trying to make me fit your idea of a loving person.”
The General Conference took an unusual turn later Tuesday afternoon when Carlene Fogle-Miller, a young delegate from Florida, proposed an investigation into “vote buying” at the conference. The proposal to send the matter to the church’s ethics committee passed 417-388.
“If there is nothing to hide, there is no need to fear an ethics investigation,” Fogle-Miller said on Twitter. “Period.”
The United Methodists’ Book of Discipline states that all people are of “sacred worth” but denounces the “practice of homosexuality” as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Openly gay and lesbian clergy members can be removed from ministry, but church trials on the matter are rare.
In 2016, dozens of United Methodist clergy members came out as lesbian, gay or bisexual defying their church’s ban on “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” serving in ministry and essentially daring their supervisors to discipline them.
In a public letter posted online, 111 pastors, deacons, elders and candidates for ministry said church rules require “that we not bring our full selves to ministry, that we hide from view our sexual orientations and gender identities.”
That campaign came after a similar letter issued by 15 Methodist ministers in New York, who also openly acknowledged that they are gay or lesbian.
In some parts of the United States, openly gay clergy serve with few if any restrictions. Conservatives argue that such policies threaten to break up the church into small, self-governing branches.
For more than a decade, liberal United Methodists have sought to push the church to adopt more lenient provisions, without success.
The General Conference on Tuesday could continue into the evening, as the 800 delegates continue to debate proposals.
After the vote to reject the more liberal proposal, Reconciling Ministries, a pro-LGBT church group, tweeted, “God weeps. The Spirit rages. The children of God are undefeated.”
By Daniel Burke, CNN Religion Editor