South Carolina Methodists convening in Greenville for their five-day annual conference will consider petitions aimed at settling a rift within the United Methodist Church over whether to allow same-sex marriage and gay clergy.
In February, the rule-making body of the Church affirmed and strengthened the denomination’s bans on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and same-sex marriage.
Just more than half of the church’s 822 global delegates voted to uphold the bans, ending a special conference in a seemingly irreconcilable split. That decision came about after an alternative plan was narrowly shot down at the global conference that would have allowed local and regional church leadership to decide their own stances on LGBT acceptance and inclusion.
The vote has caused divisions in and among U.S. churches, where some members are more accepting of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy, and the more conservative Methodist conferences outside the United States, particularly in Africa, where the church is growing.
Dan O’Mara, a spokesman for the S.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church, said while some church members supported the decision to affirm the bans, “some were disappointed that the church’s stance on human sexuality remained unchanged. And there are some within both of those groups who believe that United Methodists can and should remain in mission and ministry together, despite deep divisions on this issue.”
United Methodists claim nearly 7 million members across the United States and more than 12 million members worldwide. It is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the country and in South Carolina, with nearly 1,000 churches and more than 222,000 church members across the state.
South Carolina will join annual conferences around the U.S. that have resolutions before them seeking to push back against the February vote. S.C. delegates will discuss petitions urging United Methodist Church leadership to rescind or reconsider its ban.
Supporters of the move say the ban alienates LGBTQ congregants and clergy when the Church should be pushing to be more inclusive at at time of historic decline in membership in the United States.
United Methodists lost more than 16,000 members in the past decade, according to statewide church statistics, following a trend among major Protestant denominations in the state.
Petitions push back on same-sex, LGBT ban
Supporters of ending the bans on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy set forth in the so-called “Traditional Plan,” say the bans are threatening the longevity of the church.
According to one petition church members will consider this week, “(T)he Traditional Plan … promotes harm, promotes schism, is not compatible with the historic witness of The United Methodist Church, will likely contribute to greater decline of the population of The United Methodist Church in the United States, and will hinder our ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Current Methodist doctrine holds that all people have sacred worth. But it also says the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and prohibits “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being “certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
Pastors who officiate at same-sex weddings face a one-year suspension without pay and termination of conference membership and church credentials.
An anticipated 2,000 S.C. delegates will vote Monday at the earliest whether to petition the United Methodist’s rule-making body, set to reconvene in 2020, to rescind or reconsider its ban on same-sex couples and LGBT clergy.
The three proposals would:
- Repeal the toughened church rules passed at the 2019 General Conference. The move would keep in place the ban on same-sex marriage and self-avowed, practicing LGBTQ clergy, but urge church leadership to continue the conversation and “recommit itself to the work of reconciliation and peacemaking.”
- Remove church language prohibiting same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay church clergy
- Create separate church rules of conferences outside of the United States where there is a predominance of support for current church teaching.
‘Strife’ within SC congregations
Some South Carolina United Methodist churches are struggling with how to respond and move forward.
In Lexington, Mt. Horeb is one of many congregations considering splitting from the denomination if it relaxes its rules, according to Religion News Service.
The church has close to 5,000 members, according to that news report. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Jeff Kersey, could not be reached for comment Friday, but told the news agency that he has received just three emails from people who said they disagreed with him.
No South Carolina church, though, has formally requested to leave the denomination since April, when the Church’s lawmaking body approved procedures for local churches to disaffiliate from the denomination and retain local church property, O’Mara said.
“Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, the resident bishop of the South Carolina Conference, has encouraged all South Carolina United Methodists — regardless of their differences — to stay in conversation, to focus on things that unite them, and to remain steadfast in their mission,” O’Mara said.
Conversations, he said, have been taking place at the local church, district and conference levels in the months since the General Conference vote affirming the bans.
In Charleston, the chairman of the board at Two Rivers church says its church leadership “is wholly committed to equity and inclusion for LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the Church without exception.”
“We find The United Methodist Church’s policies regarding human sexuality to be exclusionary, divisive, and incompatible with Christian teaching,” Charles Monteith wrote church members following the February vote enhancing Church policies about homosexuality and strengthening enforcement. “We repent for the harm The United Methodist Church has inflicted on our LGBTQIA+ siblings by refusing to affirm their sacred worth without exception, and we humbly ask for their forgiveness.”
United Methodist churches in Columbia are split as well.
“Our parish, our church is collectively very much on the more inclusive side, but there are a fair number of people in our church who disagree with this,” said S.C. conference lay delegate Don Fowler, a member of the Washington Street United Methodist Church in Columbia. “We are on the losing side of that questions right now.”
Fowler said he feels the South Carolina denomination as a whole is more conservative and supportive of the Traditional Plan.
“Whatever the annual conference does … is likely to cause some additional strife within certain congregations,” said Fowler, who supports full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the church.