Will LGBT Opposition Divide the United Methodist Church?

‘We’ve battled to a draw, so instead of continuing this, why don’t we bless each other…’

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(Elyssa Cherney, Chicago Tribune) A ruling handed down Friday by the United Methodist Church’s highest court upholds stricter prohibitions against gay clergy members and same-sex weddings.

Though some local churches have gone against those rules for years, ministers will now face discipline for it.

“The bottom line is that it will be more strictly enforced,” said Barry Bryant, an associate professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston. “The rules have always been there; it’s just they have not been followed.”

Now, deep fissures within the church over LGBTQ issues threaten to disrupt that spiritual harmony for 12.5 million worshippers worldwide, the largest denomination of mainline Protestants.

Though long-simmering, the controversy boiled over in February when a narrow majority of delegates to the church’s global General Conference voted to pass the measure, known as the “Traditional Plan.” This week, the nine-person judicial council has met behind closed doors in Evanston to review challenges to the policy.

Before Friday’s ruling, pastors on both sides of the debate said the church has reached a breaking point and that, no matter the outcome, it would be difficult to move forward as one united denomination.

The Rev. Scott Field of First Church in Crystal Lake represents the conservative viewpoint. He supports the recent General Conference decision and does not see a way to resolve the dispute, since the underlying issue involves personal beliefs and not just opinions.

“It’s pretty clear we don’t have a future together,” Field said of the faith’s progressive wing. “We’ve battled to a draw, so instead of continuing this, why don’t we bless each other” and go separate ways?

In Barrington, one parish is downplaying its association with the United Methodists because of what its pastor called the “offensive” parts of the Traditional Plan.

As a result, the church is referring to itself in some instances only as “Barrington Church,” rather than “Barrington United Methodist Church,” according to the Rev. Chris Winkler and a message posted on the church’s website.

Winkler, who descended from several generations of Methodist clergy, said it was a difficult decision, but that the latest disagreement is just a symptom of a larger problem in the denomination.

“This is about a more narrow understanding of Scripture and a tighter doctrine that says there’s one right way of thinking, one orthodoxy that we should all subscribe to,” he said.

Winkler said he is hoping for an amicable separation, but he does not think it’s possible for the church to remain united.

Despite the deep divide, some congregants and clergy members say they want to remain in the denomination and fight back.

S.E. Brick, whose preferred pronouns are “they” and “them,” said doing so would send an important message that LGBTQ people are welcome.

“I have the resilience and self-esteem to stay in the institution and be vocal about my opinions, but I don’t think that’s the right decision for everyone,” Brick said. “I certainly expect that queer people will not feel safe in a denomination as a whole that is choosing to do this.”

A group of progressive and centrist pastors will explore more options during a meeting in Kansas next month. The invitation-only gathering, dubbed “UMC–Next,” will bring together 600 leaders who oppose the Traditional Plan, according to a letter from its organizers.

The divide over LGBTQ issues has been growing for years and started not long after United Methodism was founded in 1968. Four years later, language was added to the Book of Discipline banning “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from ministry.

Despite the rule, some local churches operated under their own standards, allowing same-sex marriages and gay clergy members in their institutions.

In 2016, the issue garnered broader attention when the United Methodists’ first openly lesbian and married bishop, Karen Oliveto, was elected. The judicial council ruled that her appointment violated church law, but Oliveto, who leads the United Methodist Church for Colorado and several neighboring states, was allowed to retain her post when the council sent the case back for the local jurisdiction to decide.

Following Oliveto’s election, the United Methodists formed a commission to study how the denomination should proceed on such issues. During that effort, the commission proposed the Traditional Plan, but also another policy that gave churches local discretion on the matter.

The Bricks’ pastor, the Rev. Grace Imathiu, said she plans to attend the conference in Kansas next month. In 2015, the Evanston church publicly changed its policy to allow clergy to perform same-sex marriages, according to a letter posted to its website. Baptism for the children of gay parents is also allowed at the church, which boasts a rainbow flag as the banner photo for its Facebook page.

“What happened at General Conference revealed to us that the Book of Discipline is incompatible with our understanding with of the Gospel,” Imathiu said. “I am concerned not so much about the institution, but about people … the trans teenager, and the mother of the gay child and the lesbian called into ministry.”

This isn’t the first time that United Methodists have confronted internal discord.

The Methodist Episcopal Church, which preceded United Methodists, broke up in 1844 over disagreements about slavery, said Bryant, the United Methodist scholar. The church splintered along regional lines before coming together again in 1968.

Witnessing the recent conflict has been hard for many worshippers, Bryant said, like watching two longtime parents get divorced.

“You’re having to choose sides,” Bryant said. “It’s a very emotionally difficult decision.”

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