The British Methodist Church, the fourth-largest Christian denomination in the U.K., has become the largest to allow same-sex marriages.
At the Methodist Conference Wednesday, delegates voted 254-46 to change the church’s definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, the BBC reports. The church is expected to begin conducting same-sex marriages by this fall.
The resolution delegates approved defines marriage as the union “of two people who freely enter it,” rather than the union of a man and a woman. But it recognizes that there are members and clergy who hold to the definition of marriage as a male-female union and affirms them in that belief; by doing so, the denomination hopes to discourage conservative congregations from splitting off. No clergy member will be forced to perform a marriage for a same-sex couple.
LGBTQ+ activists and allies praised the church’s action. “Some of us have been praying for this day to come for decades and can hardly believe it is now here,” said the Rev. Sam McBratney, chair of Dignity and Worth, a group supporting LGBTQ+ equality in the church. “We are so grateful to our fellow Methodists for taking this courageous step to recognize and affirm the value and worth of LGBTQ+ relationships. We reassure those who do not support this move that we want to continue to work and worship with you in the church we all love.”
Despite the denomination’s accommodation of those who oppose same-sex marriage, there are those who may leave. “Today is a line in the sand for many people and seen as a significant departure from our doctrine,” Carolyn Lawrence, a former vice president of the conference, said during debate on the resolution, according to the BBC.
But the Rev. Sonia Hicks, president of the Methodist Conference, struck a hopeful note. “The debate today and our wider conversation has been conducted with grace and mutual respect,” she said. “As we move forward together after this historic day for our church, we must remember to continue to hold each other in prayer and to support each other respecting our differences.”
The British Methodist Church has about 164,000 members in more than 4,000 congregations.
In the U.S., the United Methodist Church is considering a split over the issue of LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriage, with supportive congregations forming one denomination and opponents forming another. The church outlined the plan in January 2020 and expected to have delegates vote on it at its General Conference that year, but the conference was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference and the vote are now set to take place in August 2022. The United Methodist Church is the third-largest Christian denomination in the U.S., behind the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention.