The United Methodist Church is the last major U.S.-based Protestant denomination that hasn't resolved a sharp division over homosexuality, at least legislatively.
That may change in two years with what may be a decisive gathering over issues of same-sex unions and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. The denomination, one of the largest Protestant bodies in both Western Pennsylvania and the nation, has scheduled a special General Convention for February 2019 in St. Louis.
That's the only legislative body that can speak for the whole church, and it meets regularly only every four years, most recently in 2016 when it punted the dispute to a "Commission on a Way Forward." The special convention will have authority only to deliberate on the commission's findings.
Since the turn of the century, the nation's largest Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches broke years of deadlock by moving decisively toward ordain openly gay and lesbian clergy and blessing same-sex unions. In each case, a significant minority of separated from the denominations and and joined new or existing conservative denominations.
The United Methodists' debate is similar to that in the other denominations but different in one major respect. It's a global denomination, with a large and growing portion of its members in African countries, which are far more conservative theologically, including on sexual issues.
Last year, I reported that the U.S. church once had 11 million members at its peak in the late 1960s, but it now has 7.2 million members, down 6 percent in just the last five years. At the same time, the overseas part of the church, mainly African, grew 11 percent to 5.1 million, according to church statistics.
The announcement of the upcoming special General Convention comes even as a church court considers a legal challenge to last year's election of its first openly gay bishop.
The denomination’s governing document says all persons are of sacred worth but that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” are not to be clergy.