CHARLOTTE, N.C. (RNS) — United Methodists meeting for their top legislative assembly Wednesday (May 1) overwhelmingly overturned a measure that barred gay clergy from ordination in the denomination, a historic step for the nation’s second-largest Protestant body.

With a simple vote call and without debate, delegates to the General Conference removed the ban on the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” — a prohibition that dates to 1984.

With that vote, the worldwide denomination of some 11 million members joins the majority of liberal Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ, which also ordain LGBTQ clergy.

The morning vote on the motion was part of a larger series of calendar items voted on in bulk. They also included a motion barring superintendents, or overseers, from punishing clergy for performing a same-sex wedding or prohibiting a church from holding a same-sex wedding, though the actual ban on same-sex weddings in churches has yet to be voted on.

The vote on the calendar items was 692-51, or about 93% in favor.

After the vote, LGBTQ delegates and their allies gathered on the floor of the Charlotte Convention Center to sing, hug, cheer and shed tears. As they sang liberation songs, “Child of God” and “Draw the Circle Wide,” they were joined by Bishop Tracy S. Malone, the president of the denomination’s Council of Bishops.

Jorge Lockward, left, minister of worship arts at the Church of the Village in New York City, leads a spontaneous group of United Methodists in singing songs of liberation after the vote to eliminate a ban on the ordination of gay clergy, at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., on May 1, 2024. (RNS photo/Yonat Shimron)

The votes reverse prohibitive policies toward LGBTQ people taken on at the denomination’s 2019 General Convention, when delegates doubled down and tightened bans on gay clergy and same-sex marriage. Most of those 2019 measures have now been reversed.

After the 2019 General Convention, some 7,600 traditionalist churches across the United States — about 25% of the total number of U.S. churches — left the denomination, fearing that the tightening of the bans would not hold.

The absence of delegates from churches that left the denomination accounted for the quick reversal of the policies.

Wednesday’s vote follows several others approved Tuesday that removed mandatory minimum penalties for clergy who officiate same-sex weddings as well as a ban on funding for LGBTQ causes that “promote acceptance of homosexuality.”

The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News Magazine, a theologically conservative advocacy group, said the votes were expected.

“It indicates a consensus in the United Methodist Church that it wants to go in a much more liberal pathway,” said Lambrecht, who previously served as a United Methodist pastor.

Lambrecht, who is observing the conference along with some members from the Wesleyan Covenant Association, another dissenting group, wanted to reopen the time period churches may leave the United Methodist Church with their properties. That exit window closed at the end of 2023.

But on Wednesday, the General Conference instead voted to eliminate the pathway to disaffiliation that was created in 2019. In another motion, it directed annual conferences to develop policies for inviting disaffiliated churches to return to the fold, if they wish.

Still to be voted on is a larger measure to remove from the rule book, called the Book of Discipline, a 1972 addition that says homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Book of Discipline also defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Those are expected to be debated as part of a revision to the denomination’s social principles on Thursday.

The main group opposing the changes in policy toward LGBTQ were some African delegates, many of whom live in countries where homosexuality is illegal. The United Methodist Church is a global denomination and its footprint outside the U.S. is greatest in Africa.

“We see homosexuality as a sin,” said Forbes Matonga, the pastor of a church in West Zimbabwe. “So to us, this is a fundamental theological difference where we think others no longer regard the authority of  Scripture.”

U.S. Methodists are hoping that a radical realignment of the worldwide church would give different regions of the church greater equity to tailor church life to their own customs and traditions, including on issues related to sexuality. That so-called “regionalization” plan passed the General Conference but must still be ratified by individual conferences over the course of the next year.

Bishop Ken Carter of the Western North Carolina Conference said he wanted to acknowledge the historic step the church took toward inclusion.

“We’ve singled out one group for discrimination for 52 years,” Carter said. “And we’ve done that on an understanding of homosexuality whose origins came when it was understood to be a disease and a disorder.”

That, he said, has now changed.

“Increasingly,” he said, “people see that God’s spirit is in gay and lesbian people.”