Methodists avoid schism over LGBTQ stance – for now

Hundreds of well-wishers attended the wedding of John Romano and Jim Wilborne at Charlotte's First United Methodist Church.
Hundreds of well-wishers attended the wedding of John Romano and Jim Wilborne at Charlotte's First United Methodist Church. Reconciling Ministries Network

In a giant convention center in the far northwest corner of the country last week, thousands of people representing millions of members gathered for discussion and debate that at times was so impassioned it threatened to rip their nearly half-century-old organization apart.

This was not a political party gathering, but the once-every-four-years meeting of the governing body of the United Methodist Church.

While the 865 elected delegates had a long list of policy issues to work through during the two-week General Conference, the unity of their denomination hinged on just one: Would the church change its treatment of LGBTQ people, or would it continue to refuse to allow same-sex weddings and bar from ordination anyone not single and celibate or faithfully married to someone of the opposite sex?

After hours of intense and sometimes tearful debate, delegates voted to approve a suggestion offered by a majority of their bishops to defer the discussion until a commission could be formed to study it and make recommendations.

I was hoping for more. But knowing the tensions that are so visibly present in our church, this is a good and huge step forward.

Jen Anderson, pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Durham

While some who watched the debate were disappointed that convention delegates didn’t finally settle a matter Methodists have argued about for more than four decades, others said the decision offers hope that the church – sometimes called “America’s Church” for its generally progressive stance, its democratic governance, its open-door policy and its inclusion of members on the far left, the far right and everywhere in between – can offer an example of how people with deeply held but differing beliefs still can work together for good.

“I was hoping for more,” said Jen Anderson, pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Durham, who attended General Conference as an observer and was reeling after the debate Wednesday, which grew so intense that presiding officials called a break at one point to let participants cool off. “But knowing the tensions that are so visibly present in our church, this is a good and huge step forward.”

Anderson’s was the first United Methodist congregation in North Carolina to join the church’s “reconciling” movement, meaning it intentionally welcomes people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning. A third to a half of the 25 or so people who worship at the church on Sundays identify as LGBTQ, Anderson said.

The Book of Discipline – Methodism’s governing document – says all persons are of sacred worth, but language added at the General Conference of 1972 stipulates that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates (for the ministry), ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the The United Methodist Church.”

Reconciling churches and those in the denomination who support LBGTQ rights want the United Methodists to strike that language, which they say is unnecessarily harmful and pushes people out of the church.

United Methodists who are part of a “traditionalist” or “orthodox” movement say the language is in keeping with Biblical teaching and fulfills the church’s responsibility to urge followers to live according to the highest moral standards.

Harmful language

Historically, Methodism has been regarded as a largely progressive denomination, theologically and politically. Founder John Wesley licensed a woman to preach in 1761, the Book of Discipline vehemently opposed slavery and the church supported women’s right to vote and the U.S. Civil Rights movement. The United Methodist denomination was formed in 1968 with the merger of its white and black sects – the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church – to form a single, desegregated denomination.

Its motto is, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.”

But with the introduction of the language on sexuality in the Book of Discipline in 1972, some members say, the church officially singled out another portion of its membership for derision and exclusion.

The question of what to do about the policy became more urgent in advance of this year’s General Conference after the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriages legal across the country with a decision in June 2015. Even before that, United Methodist clergy members here and there had officiated over same-sex weddings, and some had been disciplined by the church. As the date of the conference approached, those supporting change in the Book of Discipline seemed to challenge the church hierarchy to take a stand.

A Methodist minister and retired bishop presided over a gay wedding in Charlotte in late April, and Bishop Larry Goodpaster, leader of the Western North Carolina Conference, was forced to open a file on the incident after receiving a complaint from a church member.

Two days before the General Conference began, more than 100 ministers, most of them retired, wrote an open letter to the church declaring they are LGBT or Q.

Julie Hilliard Wood of Winston-Salem said her son, Ben, never announced he was gay, though she said she understood it from the time he was a small child. Growing up, she said, he was teased and bullied so much that she and her husband moved him repeatedly from one school to another.

Finally, she said, they found a United Methodist church in town where the youth group embraced him.

“He had the best friends and the best experiences there,” she said, participating in youth activities and retreats and mission work. He helped paint a porch, repair a roof and spruce up a building at a Methodist Home for Children.

I was hoping for more. But knowing the tensions that are so visibly present in our church, this is a good and huge step forward.

Jen Anderson, pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Durham

Then, she said, a new leader came into the youth group, and over a period of months he changed the dynamics of the group toward Ben. Her son began to feel unwelcome.

Finally, she said, when Ben was 16, the new leader accused him in front of the group of being gay.

“He was told he was not welcome, he was not representative of Christ and he was going to hell,” she said.

Wood said her son was devastated and so were she and her husband.

“It was a betrayal,” she said. “Here was this place where he finally felt safe, where they talk about love and compassion and the Golden Rule and yet, if you’re gay, all of that goes out the window.”

Afterward, Wood said, she and her family left that church and Ben never went to another. He graduated from high school and went away to college. On one trip home, he told his mother, “I will never be accepted here.”

Wood said she now regards the abuse Ben received through his life as cumulative, “Each thing adding to the last.” What happened to him at church, she said, “was spiritual trauma, and it had an insidious effect.”

During his junior year of college, when Ben was 21, he took his own life.

Today, Wood attends Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, a reconciling congregation with about 200 people in church on Sunday. Its pastor of 16 years, the Rev. Kelly Carpenter, said it is an ethnically and racially diverse congregation, about half of whom are LBGTQ.

When she speaks of her former church, Wood said members of the congregation there are among those who were hurt by her son’s rejection.

“They were pushed into that,” she said. “That is a very loving church with wonderful people. And if this could happen there, it could happen anywhere.”

Wood wants the United Methodists to strike the language about sexuality, because she believes some people feel it gives them license to be unkind and, she said, like North Carolina’s nullified Amendment One and its now controversial House Bill 2, “It’s saying, ‘You’re not worthy. You’re not as good. We don’t value you and you’re not welcome.’

“People are dying,” she said. “They are taking their own lives. They’re suffering.”

The Rev. Paul Stallsworth, pastor of Whiteville United Methodist Church, is president of the anti-abortion group Lifewatch – Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, and is a traditionalist when it comes to issues of homosexuality and the church.

Hearing Wood’s story, Stallsworth said he has heard similar accounts from other churches, and said, “That is wrong, and that has nothing to do with Christian ministry offering the gospel. It has nothing to do with United Methodist ministry. That is outside the boundaries.”

But Stallsworth said he does favor changing the language of the Book of Discipline as it pertains to human sexuality because in singling out homosexual behavior, it overlooks a much larger problem.

“Most of the sexual sins that are occurring in our churches are committed by heterosexuals,” Stallsworth said. “And for us to focus only on homosexual departures from the norm is disingenuous, it’s inaccurate, it makes no sense. Sin in this area is equal-opportunity.”

Stallsworth said he believes that where the church speaks to sexual behavior, it should be in support of sex “within the boundaries of marriage as described by the Bible,” and treat all departures from that the same. The Biblical standard of marriage, Stallsworth said, is a man and a woman.

Membership growing globally

As the General Conference got underway, observers said it became obvious that the delegates – half clergy, half laity, elected by geographic regions around the world – were numerically against striking the language of the Book of Discipline that pertains to homosexual behavior.

Following trends, membership in the United Methodist Church has declined in the United States, from its peak of 11 million during the 1960s to a little more than 7 million now, second in size behind the Southern Baptist Convention. Many of the denomination’s largest U.S. churches are in the South, which takes a more conservative stance on issues of sexuality.

Even as church membership is dropping here, Methodism is exploding in other parts of world; estimates are of 5 million members outside the U.S., including more than 1.2 million in Africa. That segment of the denomination is much more conservative in its theology than the U.S. church, researchers say, and would be disinclined to approve the ordination of LGBTQ clergy or same-sex weddings.

So it’s not clear what will happen as a result of the General Conference vote to send the questions to a commission. The outcome will depend in large part on whom the bishops appoint to the commission and the makeup of the delegation that would vote on its recommendations, either at the next General Conference, in 2020, or at a specially called General Conference that could happen before that. Whatever the commission recommends and the church ultimately decides, it’s still possible the denomination will split into two or more factions.

Until then, the action by the 2016 General Conference says the church “will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another – including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.”

Amy Laura Hall, an associate professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, said she looks forward to the day when the church can stop being distracted by the debate over sexuality. In her classes, she said, she has taught students who were gifted and called to ministry but had to leave Methodism because of its policy toward LGBTQ people. She considers that a grievous waste, along with all the energy, resources and good will spent on the question of sexuality that might otherwise have been used to do good in the world.

Hall believes one good thing has come out of the debate, which has gone on longer than she has been alive.

The fact that the church has averted a schism so far, when the world seems increasingly polarized, reveals, she said, “one of the blessings and great gifts of the United Methodist Church: that we hold a broad spectrum of views and we are still able to continue to the work of God in incredible ways.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin