It was a momentous vote for the United Methodist Church, as the future of the country’s second-largest Protestant church hung in the balance. In a former football stadium in St. Louis last month, church officials and lay leaders from around the world voted to strengthen their ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, a decision that could now split the church.
But at least four ballots were cast by individuals who were not authorized to vote, according to interviews and a review of the church’s records. The individuals were from African delegations whose votes were critical to restricting the church’s rules on homosexuality.
The final 54-vote margin against gay clergy and same-sex marriage exceeds the number of unauthorized votes discovered so far. But the voting irregularities raised questions about the process behind the divisive decision, which devastated progressive members. Some have discussed leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.
Church leaders are now discussing whether new votes should be called, Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, who serves on the commission on the general conference, said in a phone interview.
“The findings that have come out have caused a serious impact on issues of trust and integrity about the whole process,” he said.
A query by The New York Times last week prompted church officials to hire a consulting firm to examine whether people who were ineligible may have received credentials to vote at the church’s general conference.
Church leaders who oversaw the conference said in a statement that the audit showed it was “possible that a very limited number of ineligible persons” participated. These people were denied credentials by staff at the conference, the officials said, but were later able to procure them.
The Times found additional irregularities. For example, two delegates from South Congo, which is a state in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are listed on the official attendance records. But they never traveled to the United States for the conference because of visa issues, according to a phone interview with one and a message sent by the other to the Rev. Kalaba Chali, an official translator for the conference. In addition, three people voted as delegates for South Congo but their names are absent from conference attendance logs and delegate election records.
One unauthorized delegate was Philippe Kasap Kachez, whose father is Bishop Kasap Owan, a prominent opponent of gay clergy. Three Methodists from the Congo region identified him to The Times as a voter seated on the floor. Mr. Chali spoke with him in St. Louis and asked why he was present.
“He said he did not go to a Methodist church in Congo, instead he lives in Brussels,” Mr. Chali said in a phone interview. “He said, ‘I came here because my dad asked me to come vote against the lesbians.’”
When contacted on Facebook and WhatsApp, Mr. Kasap Kachez declined to comment. Bishop Kasap Owan did not respond to questions.
“To learn that there were irregularities in the voting is distressing and of great concern,” Bishop Kenneth Carter, the president of the Council of Bishops, said in an interview on Thursday.
When asked what these findings meant for the result of the vote of the general conference, the Rev. Gary W. Graves, secretary of the conference, said, “That is a matter that would still be under review.”
This story will be updated.