United Methodist Church leaders are meeting in St. Louis this week to discuss the denomination’s policies on LGBT issues, including whether the church should allow same-sex marriages and openly gay clergy. Views are so divided within the church that many observers have suggested that a schism may result if different factions cannot find common ground.
The UMC is one of the few major mainline Protestant denominations in the United States that currently does not sanction same-sex marriage. The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and others have moved to embrace gay marriage in recent years. (Evangelical Protestant denominations, by contrast, have not.)
United Methodists in the U.S. tend to reflect the church’s position at the more socially conservative end of mainline Protestantism. In Pew Research Center’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, 60% of United Methodists said homosexuality should be accepted by society – a clear majority, but lower than the 66% of mainline Protestants overall who took this view. In the same survey, about half of U.S. Methodists (49%) said they favored legal same-sex marriage, again lower than mainline Protestants overall (57%).
However, United Methodists – like Americans overall – have become more accepting of homosexuality in recent years. The share of United Methodists who said homosexuality should be accepted by society, for example, rose by 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014 (from 51% to 60%).
More broadly, Americans’ views about homosexuality have shifted further since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. Indeed, members of all major religious traditions have become more likely to favor legal same-sex marriage, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available. (That survey did not include enough United Methodists to analyze separately.)
The internal debate over same-sex marriage and related issues comes at a challenging time for the United Methodist Church.
While United Methodists remain America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, they have been shrinking considerably as a share of the U.S. population, part of a broader trend among U.S. Christians and particularly mainline Protestants. Our 2014 study found that United Methodists make up 3.6% of the U.S. adult population – down from 5.1% in 2007. (Mainline Protestants as a whole declined from 18.1% of the adult population to 14.7% over that seven-year period.)
The church also is older and less racially diverse than many others in U.S. The median age of United Methodist adults is 57, well above the national median. And 94% of United Methodists are white, much higher than the share of whites in the overall U.S. population (66%).
At the same time, the denomination has reportedly been growing elsewhere around the world – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where views on homosexuality tend to be very conservative. Indeed, a survey we conducted in sub-Saharan Africa a decade ago found that Christians in the region overwhelmingly said homosexuality is morally wrong, including nine-in-ten or more who held this position in countries such as Liberia, Nigeria and Kenya. The church estimates that 30% of the delegates at this week’s meeting are from Africa, while 58% are from the U.S.