The United Methodist Church Is Split on Gays. But Is Schism the Answer?

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
July 23 2014 4:12 PM

And They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love

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Who deserves a seat in the United Methodist Church?

Goran Bogicevic / Shutterstock.com

It was 1997. I was 16, right up front, and one of more than 1,000 delegates to the United Methodist Church’s East Ohio Youth Annual Conference. This was like the pee-wee league for the regional annual conferences where bishops preside over clergy and adult delegates, who together govern and conduct the business of the regional church. We followed Robert’s Rules of Order, passed motions, and offered amendments as practice for the varsity conferencing we might do as adults. Methodism—as a Protestant denomination founded by guys who were into, well, method—is big on bureaucracy.

Packed into a sweaty hall in Lakeside, Ohio, we raised our hands aloft as we sang “Our God Is an Awesome God.” It felt good, alternating between praise-music jam session and calls to vote on the doctrinal nuts and bolts of our church. We were devout and democratic. After a motion passed supporting measures to limit Satanic and pornographic material on the Internet—and then another condemning censorship—it was proposed that we express our official disagreement with a single sentence in The Book of Discipline, the church’s official rulebook: “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

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The floor opened for debate.

It was Leviticus, Sodom and Gomorrah. It was teenagers with unkempt facial hair sputtering damnation. It was hate dressed in Scripture, and it rolled on and on as I sat stiffly in my chair. Something chilled within me. If this sea of believers condemning gays were Christians, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be one of them.

Finally, a peaceable voice called for an amendment, suggesting a middle ground on homosexuality: “As we do not condone any sin, we do lovingly accept them into the church, as we are all sinners in the eyes of God.” It was a scale balancer, verbiage that inserted a certain sort of “sinner’s equality” but still placed homosexuality along the path to perdition. It gestured toward the church’s ostensible spirit of compassion but upheld the obvious consensus in the room—that the Bible and Methodism reduced homosexuality, a core aspect of many people’s experience of the world, to sinfulness.

The amendment reflected ongoing attempts to describe all people as having sacred worth while at the same time banning some of their marriages, their calls to ministry. It felt like a trap. One could either stand with those who upheld The Book of Discipline, or stand for loving acceptance, a partial, you-are-broken, condescending benevolence—that didn’t feel much like love to me. I voted for the thing, weighing some love as better than none, but it didn't feel right. Certainly justice couldn’t mean this sort of compromise.

* * *

In May of this year, more than 80 United Methodist pastors and theologians issued a statement: “We need to recognize the reality that we—laity, clergy and even the Council of Bishops—are divided and will remain divided.”

The issue, as it had been for us at that youth conference in 1997 and as it has been within the United Methodist Church since the ’70s, was how the church would define its relationship with LGBTQ people. Methodism is a church bound by theology that stresses the universal availability of salvation and love for God and neighbor. It’s also a church defined by independent scriptural study and a massive organization of conferences that ordains ministers and tends to ecclesiastical business. Debate is built into the system, ideally creating a church that tolerates a variety of opinions.

The church’s founder, John Wesley, is often quoted as having said, “Though we may not think alike, may we not all love alike?” Within the church, the intellect is given certain liberties, but it’s love that binds. Yet as debate over homosexuality has intensified, a fight over which parts of Scripture are essential to the church has shifted from heady theological disputations to a battle over whether reason and the Bible tell Methodists to love or condemn gays (or both). And the final call continues to depend upon majority interpretation and, at conference, a majority vote. Furor over the question has increased so much in recent years that schism appears imminent.

John Wesley.
John Wesley, Methodism's founder.

Painting by Frank O. Salisbury

A recent spate of church trials and internal judicial hearings has made the issue more urgent. The most high-profile of these was for the Rev. Frank Schaefer, a Pennsylvania-based pastor who was defrocked last fall for officiating his gay son’s wedding. (He was recently reinstated by the church on appeal.) And there were others: the Rev. Rose Mary Denman, defrocked in 1987 for being openly gay; the Rev. Jimmy Creech defrocked and the Rev. Gregory Dell suspended in 1999 for officiating same-sex marriages. The Rev. Beth Stroud’s clergy credentials were removed in 2005, and the Rev. Amy DeLong was suspended in 2011, both for being “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. Last summer, Mary Ann Barclay was denied the next step in her ordination process in southwest Texas after coming out.

For a denomination that has a reputation for being moderate—sometimes called the radical middle—division over gays has been ugly. On one side are traditionalists, those who call the “practice of homosexuality” sinful, those who feel betrayed by bishops like Martin D. McLee who now refuse to prosecute with church trials pastors who officiate same-sex unions. To the traditionalists, this is a rebellion against the Discipline that represents a breach of method and of covenant, and they see no way forward but separation. To progressives, anything other than the full inclusion and affirmation of their LGBTQ brothers and sisters betrays the gospel’s (and Wesley’s) vision of Jesus Christ reaching out in love to those living on the margins of society.

While the traditionalists and progressives consider leaving each other, many individuals—like me—have already left the church entirely: Nationally, the United Methodist Church—the nation’s largest mainline denomination—loses about 1 percent of its membership each year (it dropped by more than 90,000 members during 2011-12 alone). While a variety of reasons are responsible for the exodus, philosophical disagreements are clearly among them.

But the Rev. Gregory D. Gross, an openly gay Chicago deacon, is staying put. “It’s where I was raised … it’s where I was told I am a beloved child of God,” he says. He’s hanging on to make it a safe place for young people baptized into the church, other beloved children of God. Gross recounts sitting with young teenage boys after they receive positive HIV tests, a volunteer service he performs at the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago. These are boys from Chicago’s South Side, living on the streets because they told their mothers they might be gay. Their families reject them because their faith rejects homosexuality. They survive through sex work. “It’s the church's stance that has sent this boy out into the streets. Because of the church this child is now HIV positive,” says Gross, “and the church is complicit in that.”

The Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy, an ordained United Methodist elder in upstate New York, was charged last summer with a complaint that she is a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.” She’s married, has kids with her partner—she’s basically as self-avowed as you can get. According to the Judicial Council (the Supreme Court for the UMC), proving that one is a “practicing” homosexual means confirming that a person has had genital contact with a member of the same sex. While the proposition is wildly intrusive, Thompson Tweedy didn’t want to be a part of the shame she and her queer friends have been taught to feel about their bodies.

“If they’re going to be so indecent as to ask,” she determined, “I’m going to give them an honest answer.” But church counsel didn’t quite ask. Her bishop dismissed the complaint due to lack of evidence. If she were in another conference with another bishop, a friend reminded her, she would have simply gotten a call and been told to turn in her credentials. Such a confrontation is so intimidating that most clergy just do it without a fuss.

I ask the question I keep asking gay Methodists who stuck it out: Why stay when you are treated this way? “This is my church too,” Thompson Tweedy says. “I won’t let the church that I love be beaten down by prejudice and bigotry.”

* * *

For Methodist traditionalists, the pull of schism emanates from two books: The Book of Discipline and the Bible. It’s the Discipline—a rule book revisited and revised at quadrennial General Conferences through amendment—that states: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”

Book of Discipline.
The Methodist playbook.

UMC.

The Discipline is ostensibly an assemblage of wisdom from United Methodist pastors, theologians, and delegates, drawn from the Bible, mixed with a heaping helping of Wesleyan reverence for Scripture and tradition, which informs the church’s unique take on the Christian faith. It is not to be changed lightly. The Rev. Rob Renfroe, a Texas pastor and president of Good News, an orthodox reform movement within UMC that has been issuing releases calling for amicable separation, believes that Methodist traditionalists and progressives simply have a fundamental difference of opinion over the inspiration and authority of the Bible.

“The Bible is very clear and consistent in its teaching that sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage are not pleasing to God,” Renfroe says. “The only way we could accept sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage would be to believe the Bible is not God’s word.” He adds, “And we’re not prepared to do that.”

In its call for amicable separation, the Good News statement describes progressives as those who “believe that significant parts of the Scriptures do not provide an accurate understanding of God’s heart and mind and may be discarded as uninspired and in error.”

Renfroe does make distinctions between Old Testament laws for governing Biblical Israel, ceremonial laws, and God’s moral laws, which are absolute. “Homosexual relations,” for traditionalists like Renfroe, are prohibited by moral law.

Renfroe’s view is shared by many Methodists, especially those in other countries. The United Methodist Church is a global entity enjoying swelling membership in Africa and the Philippines, even while numbers dwindle in the United States. At the 2012 General Conference, the U.S. traditionalists were bolstered by a growing conservative African delegation, which joined them in blocking a motion that would merely have acknowledged that Methodists disagree on the issue of homosexuality.

“If our bishops will not enforce our covenant, there are no truly absolute, good options left for the United Methodist Church. We have to find the least bad way of going forward,” said Renfroe. And that least bad way is an amicable separation—if you’re in the traditionalist camp.

The amicable part is important. A church may be its theology, its methodology, its active struggle to live the word of God, but it is also a body that shares financial interests. Progressive United Methodist blogger and minister, the Rev. Jeremy Smith has pointed out that the likely signatories of the statement calling for amicable separation represent a handful of ministers from the church’s largest megachurches, which pay millions in local apportionments. It’s serious when deep-pocketed congregations threaten to leave the fold.

Moreover, local congregations pay for and maintain church property, in trust, but it is owned by the United Methodist Church. As UMC’s General Council on Finance and Administration makes clear, if a church is abandoned or “has to be discontinued because it is ‘broken’ in some way or no longer serving its purpose as a United Methodist church,” the annual conference typically assumes ownership of the property on behalf of the denomination. Schism under uglier terms (see the Presbyterian situation, for example) could mean losing property, carving up pensions.

One vision of “amicable,” according to Renfroe, is that every annual conference would vote to determine if it wanted to be a progressive Methodist conference or a traditionalist Methodist conference. Local congregations would vote which way they would prefer to go. Conference boundaries would need to be redrawn, some areas extended. That may sound tidy, but such an arrangement would benefit traditionalists. A large voting block of global Methodists keeps striking down changes to doctrine concerning homosexuality, and it appears reasonable that the tide of churches globally would separate with the traditionalists.

Regardless of how the church might slice and dice globally, the split would also be deeply personal. As a lapsed Methodist myself, I know that every assembly of two Methodists is a committee with three opinions. Majority votes may speak for the church as defined at General Conference, but on each pew in any given church, votes will split. Congregations will split. If history offers any lessons—from the divide in the Methodist church over slavery or the Presbyterian and Episcopal church splits over ordination of gay clergy—a broken church is an acrimonious one.

Even if it could be done smoothly and traditionalist churches got a clean break, says the Rev. Gross, the day after schism a child will come out to his or her parents as gay in the new United Methodist Church that has very publically expressed contempt for LGBTQ people. “So what happens then?” he asks.

* * *

Within months of the Good News statement calling for schism, the Revs. Adam Hamilton of Kansas and Mike Slaughter of Ohio—who also organized the rejected 2012 General Conference motion to agree to disagree—went public with a statement calling for “A Way Forward.” Thus far, more than 2,000 church leaders have signed the statement, which calls for unity of a sort. It suggests that local churches be given the authority to determine how they will minister to gay and lesbian people, including whether to allow same-sex marriages or unions.

Gross, who signed the document, says it is an honest recognition of how the church is currently functioning: Some annual conferences are ordaining LGBTQ candidates; some pastors are already performing same-sex marriages. Progressive churches have joined together to form the Reconciling Ministries Network, the inclusive movement within the United Methodist Church.

Mary Ann Barclay, the ordination candidate in Texas who is awaiting a rehearing, appreciates the spirit in which “A Way Forward” was written. Nevertheless, she says, “It sacrifices LBGTQ people in the South.” Areas that are majority conservative would have the right to maintain their doctrine on homosexuality for a very long time.

“I really don’t want the church I love to split,” says Barclay, but she is concerned about the ongoing harm done by the church to LGBTQ people. “A Way Forward” would allow many churches to remain just as homophobic as they currently are. Barclay can’t ascribe to a form of unity that means “that I can sit next to somebody who thinks that I’m going to hell or that I have some psychological problem because I’m gay. They might be able to sit down and have a conversation with me and table that, but I can’t say that I can feel respected."

UMC Logo.
Can Methodists live up to their ideals?

UMC.

Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, was once a United Methodist clergyman, but before reaching ordination, he left his church. He’s gay, and he realized there would be no place for him there. “It’s paradoxical, because on one hand, the church has been the source of my deepest conflicts about being human, and then on the other hand, the church has been the source of some of the greatest joys that I’ve ever received in my life. I have my faith as a result of the church’s teachings, and I never would have survived without my faith,” he says.

Berryman sees the denomination at an unfortunate impasse. He has friends on both sides of the issue, all faithful followers of Jesus. “Both believe they are violating God’s will to go one way or another,” he says.

There are two years until the United Methodist Church’s next General Conference, when delegates will again come together for debate. It will be two years for factions to deepen and coalitions to form. Renfroe promises a meeting of 90 traditionalists this month, with a formal statement and signatures in August. In the end, how Methodists envision the future of their church will come down to a vote.

* * *

I’m no longer a Christian, but I cannot escape the moral guideposts that shaped me growing up. Perhaps in some ways, I remain a (small-m) methodist, if not a believer. And as an outsider feeling a certain primal protective impulse for the church, the central choice to me seems to be between a traditional adherence to method and a radical compassion. When I was a teen pouring over my Bible, what I found was a story about arms-flung-wide love and a figure who bucked those in power. As Thompson Tweedy reminded me, the New Testament says a lot about wealth and power, those who use religious authority to marginalize people, and very little about homosexuality. Jesus was far more concerned with justice, with reaching out to the outcast, she said. As I see it, Christ’s message is one that sends you outward in love. How could the traditionalists, who study Scripture so closely, not uphold this as the most fundamental moral imperative?

For help understanding, I called up the Rev. Derek Kubilus, someone I remembered from church camp. I wanted to hear from someone who wasn’t deeply embedded in either movement. “Identity is so key,” he said. He wasn’t talking about sexual identity, but church identity.

“Megachurches want to continue to be megachurches, and part of that means being tied to this conservative, evangelical mindset. And I think part of the reason why they have pushed for schism right now is because they understand that in time, the issue will fall for them. Eventually, the liberals will win, just because society is changing.”

His sonorous voice hadn’t changed since church camp, but we’ve both aged a bit. “I’m 31,” he said. “My generation of pastors is almost unanimous in its support of gay marriage. ... We’re one generation, one group of retirements away from changing it.”

It seems somehow not enough to wait for a bunch of old ideas to die in order for a church to live. But Kubilus, echoing Wesley, reminded me of what makes Methodism special: “There are very serious things that we disagree on, but we still eat the same bread. We still drink from the same cup.” There is something radical about people coming together each week despite major differences of opinion and still calling one another brother and sister. Schism threatens that.

I spent years mourning the loss of my faith, that church with its bread, its cup. I no longer believe in God or the church’s theology, but for those who do, I’ve tasted what schism could mean. They’ll give up communion; their church covenant will be torn asunder. They’ll see a final, antediluvian wave of prejudice crashing against a church built on reason and love. If I were the praying sort, I’d pray those who still believe would stand together, a great rock in a storm. I’d pray that hate would wash away—not in congregants lost, churches broken—but hearts changed. I’d pray that unity could transform. Now that, quite rightly, would be some kind of miracle.

Sarah Stankorb is an Ohio-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, Salon, and GOOD Magazine. She's also a University of Chicago Divinity School grad. Follow her on Twitter.

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