Poll: Small changes in church homosexuality views

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Have the views of U.S. United Methodists on same-sex nuptials changed since the Supreme Court legalized such marriages across the country? The short answer is some, but not much.

That was one finding of surveys of U.S. pastors and laity taken both before and after the court announced its landmark ruling on June 26. United Methodist Communications, of which United Methodist News Service is a part, commissioned the research.

“A study was done at the end of last year about what it means to be United Methodist, but we felt that we needed an update to see if the information had shifted in the current climate,” said Dan Krause, top executive of United Methodist Communications.

Polling methodology

The research divided U.S. United Methodists into three groups:

  • Pastors, who include ordained clergy, licensed local pastors and lay preachers
  • Leaders, who are lay people in church leadership roles including Sunday school teachers, trustees and church committee members
  • Members, self-identified United Methodists who may be church volunteers but do not currently hold any church leadership roles

In November through December 2014 and again in late July through early August, Customer Research International in San Marcos, Texas, conducted the surveys among pastors and volunteer leaders by phone. During the same period, Corporate Research in Jamestown, North Carolina, conducted the member research using an online panel.

Each group had a sample size of 400. The polling has a 5 percent margin of error.

The data are weighted according to United Methodists’ geographic distribution across the United States to better represent the denomination’s population. The polls screened out agency staff and paid lay staff at any level of the denomination.

See complete poll results

Overall, U.S. pastors and regular churchgoers now show slightly less support for the denomination’s ban on gay unions, while lay people in church leadership roles now show slightly more support.

Nevertheless, solid majorities of both pastors and lay leaders still back church teachings on the practice of homosexuality.

The one exception: church members who are not in church leadership roles. Since the court’s decision, a plurality of these members have gone from supporting the church’s ban on same-sex marriage to disagreeing with it.

Here are some of the findings:

  • About 54 percent of pastors agreed with the church’s ban on same-sex marriage after the Supreme Court ruling, compared to 59 percent before the ruling. About 38 percent now disagree with the ban, up from 32 percent.
  • About 54 percent of lay people in leadership roles agreed with the ban after the ruling, compared to 50 percent before. As with pastors, about 38 percent disagree with the ban ─ a drop of 1 percent.
  • About 41 percent of members agreed with the ban after the ruling, compared to 46 percent before. About 42 percent now disagree with the ban, up from 38 percent before the ruling.

Charles C. Niedringhaus, who oversees research for United Methodist Communications, noted that the changes across all three groups were too modest to be statistically significant.

Teresa Faust, who also helped oversee the study, cautioned that the research does not necessarily show a causal relationship between the court ruling and the shifts in opinion.

Polling across all three groups showed little support — only in the 30 to 40 percent range — for changing church policies and practices to be consistent with the high court.

“We can probably say that most United Methodist pastors, leaders and members do not think the church should bend to follow society,” Faust said.

Member/leader divide

The polls also highlight how views diverge between the people in the pews and the people in leadership – clergy or lay. That divergence was evident in questions regarding more than homosexuality.

In the most recent survey, pastors and lay leaders — roughly 100 and 99 percent respectively — agree with the United Methodist teachings “God’s grace is available to all” and “we seek to live together in Christian community.”

Just 81 percent of members who do not hold leadership roles agreed with that statement. About 9 percent disagreed and 10 percent indicated they neither agreed nor disagreed.

Members also were less likely to say they would welcome and include gay individuals in church membership and worship. In the new survey, 92 percent of pastors and 93 percent of lay leaders agreed they would be welcoming, while 76 percent of members agreed, with 16 percent on the fence. The United Methodist Church teaches that all people may attend worship services and be eligible for membership.

Faust suggested that the difference in opinions could be that members are less familiar with the Book of Discipline, which contains both the denomination’s prohibitions against the “practice of homosexuality” as well as its teachings on grace.

The members, Faust said, “may not be exposed to the same language as pastors and leaders; thus, they may be less inclined to agree.”

Krause noted the agency’s earlier research in 2014 also showed significant differences in what members, leaders and pastors consider most important. “I think we're just seeing a further reflection of how different roles and experiences may affect one’s point of view,” he said.

Heading toward General Conference

The Book of Discipline since 1972 has stated that all individuals are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and lists officiating at a same-sex union as a chargeable offense under church law.

Debate about the church’s stance typically surfaces at each General Conference, the global denomination’s body with the authority to change the Discipline. That trend will likely continue. Multiple proposals dealing with that stance will be heading to the next General Conference when it convenes May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon.

However, polling found other issues that United Methodists hope the international body will tackle. In the most recent survey, about 71 percent of pastors and 69 percent of leaders said they wanted General Conference to take a stand on discrimination against ethnic minorities.

In comparison, 67 percent of pastors and 64 percent of leaders said they want the lawmaking assembly to discuss sexual orientation and same-sex marriage. That is a statistically significant jump in interest — by 13 and 14 percent respectively — over what both groups told pollsters last year.

A majority of both groups also want to see the lawmaking assembly tackle religious persecution and conflict around the world.

The research indicates that United Methodist leaders, both clergy and lay, hope the church will speak to the concerns that are in the news.

Krause said he hopes the research will help foster communication and awareness around the wider church.

“United Methodist Communications conducts research about various issues to help inform the church,” he said.

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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