Pope’s shift on same-sex couples exposes Christian division

When a story appears in the media talking about the views of Christians, it’s almost certain to be focused on conservative evangelical Christians who support Donald Trump. More often than not, that story will involve banning books, denying services, or ostracizing members of the community over one issue: a hatred for people who are LGBTQ+.

As NBC News reports, 75 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation became law over the past year. Horrible as some of these new laws are, they are only a small fraction of the more than 500 such bills that were introduced in 2023. For years, leaders of right-wing churches have been describing recognition of LGBTQ+ rights as an attack on Christianity. Even members of Christian ministries found members of their own families being attacked as legislators passed these bills on claims that they were about “their Christian faith,” as one pastor put it.

On Monday, Pope Francis formally allowed Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples. It’s a significant step, even if it falls woefully short. But on the same day that this announcement was made, another major Christian group in America is falling apart around the same issue.

Side-by-side on the front page of The New York Times.

The announcement from Francis is intended to mediate between liberal priests in Europe who have already been conducting such blessings, and conservatives in the U.S. and elsewhere who have been delivering increasingly dark rhetoric against it.

Last week the Pope removed Texas Bishop Joseph Strickland, who had become increasingly critical of Francis, especially over issues of LGBTQ+ Catholics and divorced Catholics. Strickland was asked to resign but refused. This was followed by a one-sentence statement saying that he had been removed.

For years Strickland has been a popular figure on right-wing radio and social media, where he has been viewed as a voice for conservative Catholics. Following his ouster, Strickland led a protest outside a meeting of Catholic bishops. Once again, his message was that the Pope and the church were being too accepting of LGBTQ+ members.

On the same day that Francis made his declaration, another story on the front page of The New York Times showed how the same issues are driving a wedge into another major religious denomination in the United States. Roughly a quarter of the nation’s 30,000 United Methodist churches have left the denomination in the last four years over the issue of whether LGBTQ+ members should be allowed to marry or serve in the ministry.

With an approaching deadline that signals the end of a period in which the denomination opened the door to make it easier for churches that wanted to leave, more appear to be lining up to depart. In 2020, there were a reported 8 million Methodists in America. In a decade, that number could be cut in half.

Officially, the United Methodist Church still bans LGBTQ+ members from serving as ministers and does not sanction same-sex marriage. However, the denomination has ceased trying to enforce these rules, and there are several openly gay ministers and even bishops. It’s anticipated that once the deadline passes, the rules are likely to change. With a large majority of Americans continuing to support same-sex marriage, it’s hard to view any church that is strictly against such unions as a “mainstream” church.

The New York Times calls the Methodist schism “a calamitous decline for the broader tradition of mainline Protestantism, which once dominated the American religious, social and cultural landscape.” But the truth is that the United Methodist Church made a decision to become more affirming and accepting. Maybe the story should not be focused so much on the one-quarter of churches that chose to depart so that they could continue to disenfranchise LGBTQ+ people in their congregations and communities. The focus should be on the three-quarters of churches that stayed.

The decisions the United Methodist Church is now making have already been faced by dozens of mainline Protestant denominations. A great many of them have settled on a position that’s more accepting of the role of LGBTQ+ members in the church, and supportive of their unions—including marriage. That’s the position of the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and many others. And yes, several, if not all, of those denominations lost conservative congregations when they decided to drop old prejudices and accept their members for who they are, but this movement has not been all in one direction.

Almost three decades ago, conservatives schemed together to take over the Southern Baptist Convention, using what was generally considered a dry annual meeting over policy to engineer a takeover that ended with demanding each church adhere to a strict set of conservative beliefs. Thousands of churches left the denomination, forming more moderate denominations, such as the Alliance of Baptists, that are far more supportive of LGBTQ+ rights. The SBC continues to bleed hundreds of churches a year even as it tries to drag its members ever more to the right.

Here’s what one opinion piece in Baptist News Global had to say about conservatives celebrating the anniversary of their takeover.

For at least 25 years, leaders of this movement have led the SBC without serious opposition.

“Liberals” are long gone. “Moderates” are long gone as well. Fealty to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message is the unquestioned norm among SBC leaders, seminary presidents, professors, missionaries, and entity heads.

If the conservative resurgence’s leaders believed getting rid of liberals and moderates would lead to church growth, they clearly were mistaken.

Every religious denomination is struggling, but no group is falling faster than the conservative SBC, which is trying to enforce ever stricter definitions of what it means to be a Christian.

Unfortunately, the media seems to help them. The only time a “Christian perspective” or “protecting the religious rights of Christians” gets mentioned is when it applies to conservative Christians seeking to limit the rights of others.

What Pope Francis and the United Methodist Church leadership did is necessary. There are different opinions in church congregations because, like it or not, church congregations are full of people whose opinions differ. That the decisions of leadership have resulted in the departure of conservative congregations from some denominations may mean that those denominations no longer boast such lengthy rolls, but it’s far from a condemnation of mainstream Christianity or of denominations who are working in good faith—and Faith—to resolve their issues in an open and affirming way.

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