The conference at Epworth United Methodist Church on Saturday was one participants said they couldn’t have even imagined happening not so long ago.
In speeches, panels and small groups, 80 people gathered to discuss how to fully welcome the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community into the United Methodist Church.
“It’s a conversation that we couldn’t have had,” said Jimmy Creech, a former Methodist pastor who lost his position at Fairmont United Methodist Church in Raleigh in the wake of his outspoken support for gays and lesbians in the late 1980s.
Years later, as a pastor in Nebraska, he was defrocked by the church after he performed a same-sex wedding.
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Things are somewhat different now, Creech said. Members of the LGBT community are out and active members of Methodist congregations. Discussions are active about whether they can be married in the church or ordained openly into the clergy.
“A lot has changed,” he said. “Still a lot needs to change.”
The Methodist Federation for Social Action of the North Carolina Conference, an independent network of clergy and church members, hosts the annual Jack Crum Conference on Prophetic Ministry, which has focused on poverty, school diversity, voting rights and Amendment One, the state’s constitutional amendment that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman before it was struck down in federal court rulings.
This year’s theme: “Love your neighbor!”
“We’ve always had in the backs of our minds that we needed to talk about the big elephant in the room in the United Methodist Church,” said Henry Jarrett, president of the group.
The UMC does not support same-sex marriage, and official doctrine considers the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teachings.
Nicholas Victorino, 41, is gay and a practicing Methodist who attended the conference. He and his spouse were wed earlier this year in a Baptist church they rented for the ceremony, because they couldn’t be married in the church they attend each week.
Victorino said his family is welcomed by the members of their congregation at Amity UMC in Chapel Hill. But that’s not the same as being accepted by the official church.
“Full inclusion is very dear to our family’s heart,” he said. “We’re accepted by our congregation, we’re loved by our congregation, but we’re not a full part.”
As members who support their community through worship, service and financial donations, he feels they should be.
The conference included comments from former Methodists who say they love the church but left because of the lack of inclusion.
The Rev. Laurie Hays Coffman, a Methodist clergy member who spent 17 years as pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Durham, said the conference made her hopeful but she’s devastated to hear of people who have left.
“I think of all of the ways we have wasted some of the best the church has to offer because of these discriminatory policies,” she said.
The Rev. Paul Stallsworth, pastor at Whiteville United Methodist Church, said he takes a more orthodox view of church teachings and generally supports the church’s policies.
He said he felt welcomed at the conference though, especially compared with some political conversations about state and federal laws around same-sex marriage.
“This is much more Christian and much more civil,” he said.
Jarrett said the conversations about whether policies should change aren’t happening just in places where they’re likely to be welcomed, such as Saturday’s conference, but at formal meetings of the church.
At an annual meeting of the North Carolina Conference in June, church leaders from Epworth will present a resolution calling for all discriminatory language to be removed from church teachings, with a focus on language against homosexuality. The conference covers 56 counties in the eastern half of the state.
The actions at the June meeting are a lead-up to an international church meeting in 2016, where those in favor of amending the church’s policies hope to gain ground.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer, a Methodist minister who was defrocked and then reinstated into the church after performing a same-sex wedding for his son, urged participants at Saturday’s conference to be vocal supporters of those changes, with resolutions, letters to their church representatives and posts on social media.
“Everyone looks toward that – what should we do, what we can we do,” said Schaefer, now a minister in Santa Barbara, Calif., in an interview.
At the international conference, the divisions won’t just be between progressive and conservative elements in the U.S. church but among countries with divergent views on the topics.