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After Disagreements Over LGBTQ Clergy, U.S. Methodists Move Closer To Split

Ed Rowe (from left), Rebecca Wilson, Robin Hager and Jill Zundel react to the defeat of a proposal that would have allowed LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage within the United Methodist Church, at the denomination's Special Session of the General Conference in February.
Sid Hastings
Ed Rowe (from left), Rebecca Wilson, Robin Hager and Jill Zundel react to the defeat of a proposal that would have allowed LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage within the United Methodist Church, at the denomination's Special Session of the General Conference in February.

Four months after the United Methodist Church strengthened a ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings, deep dissension over the move has brought the denomination closer to a formal split. Progressive and conservative church leaders alike are increasingly convinced that their differences are irreconcilable.

"We are in an untenable situation," Bishop Thomas Bickerton told members at the annual meeting of his New York UMC Conference this month. "We must work intentionally," he said, "for a way [by which] we bless one another as we head in different directions."

Discord over whether to welcome or reject LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage has been building for years among Methodists around the world, but it came to a head in February during a UMC General Conference in St. Louis.

Conservative delegates from Africa and Asia, a growing bloc within the church, joined forces at the conference with U.S. conservatives to reaffirm the UMC definition of marriage as "the union of one man and one woman" and to bar the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." The delegates then went a step further and approved strict new penalties for clergy who violate the church rules.

Over the past four weeks, U.S. Methodists, most of whom opposed the conference's actions, have been meeting in regional conferences to consider what those actions mean for the future of their church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S.

Many of the U.S. meetings were marked by sharp exchanges between progressives and conservatives, with presiding bishops trying in vain to keep the discourse civil.

"I beg of you, listen with open minds," implored Bishop LaTrelle Easterling on the opening day of the Baltimore-Washington conference, as she convened a session on the divisive issues facing her Methodist family.

Before long, however, the deep disagreements over LGBTQ issues became clear. The Rev. Kevin Baker of Olney, Md., representing the "traditional" UMC view on marriage and sexuality, objected to the suggestion that the church's position means it does not welcome LGBTQ people. "The narrative that I know is that we want all people here," Baker said, "but that we see that God calls us out of behaviors that are not in line with his words."

A few feet away, the Rev. Michele Johns of Silver Spring, Md., identifying herself as queer, grew visibly upset at the suggestion that God does not approve of her behavior.

"I don't know how much more I can bear listening to hate," she said. "I don't believe God hates me. I believe there are those in the Methodist Church who do. And I feel it. Right now, I feel it."

Alongside Johns was another Methodist minister, Rebecca Iannicelli, who serves on the Baltimore-Washington conference staff and struggles to find some middle ground in her church.

"I am a child of divorce," she explained, "and sometimes I feel like I am 8 years old again, pulled from two sides and trying to hold everything and people together, but yet still not knowing where I belong in the landscape of this division."

Reflecting on the discussion afterward, Baker said it was such discord that has led him to conclude a Methodist division is inevitable.

"The level of harm and hurt is so great, and the inability for us to talk in healthy ways with one another, is at the place where I don't see any other option," he told NPR.

Similar scenes played out this month at other Methodist conferences across the country. Resolutions condemning the General Conference's LGBTQ-related moves were approved in Kansas, Iowa, Michigan, northern Illinois and various other regions. Several presiding bishops, including Easterling at the Baltimore-Washington meeting, ordained LGBTQ clergy in open defiance of the official UMC position.

"There are bad, human-created rules that are contrary to the commandment to love God and love neighbor," said Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, the senior pastor at Foundry United Methodist in Washington, D.C. "This is one of them."

Gaines-Cirelli and other progressive UMC leaders are vowing to resist the LGBTQ prohibitions, despite the new threat of severe penalties. For conservatives like Baker, the progressive stance suggests that the denomination in effect is already splitting.

"We've been discussing this since 1972," Baker said. "The only reason we're at this place is, we've gone from discussion and disagreement to disobedience."

What happens next, however, is unclear. Global UMC delegates will convene again in May 2020, and progressive leaders could introduce new legislation to reverse actions taken at the February conference. Delegates to the 2020 conference were chosen at the recently completed regional meetings, and tallies suggest that progressive slates gained ground.

Owing to declining UMC membership in the United States, however, the U.S. representation at the upcoming conference will be reduced. Methodist congregations are growing steadily in Africa and Asia, where views on marriage and sexuality are far more conservative, and those churches will see their delegate shares grow.

"To be sure, centrists, progressives did well in the recent elections," says the Rev. Walter Fenton, a leader of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a Methodist group that advocates for the conservative church perspective. "But we believe that is short of what they need to reverse a church that is increasingly driven by a diverse body of delegates elected in regions around the world."

The prospect for repealing the UMC ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings is remote enough that some progressive leaders are warning against a legislative strategy.

"The problem with legislation is that we are putting our emotional and spiritual lives in the hands of a system that is broken," Bickerton cautioned in his "State of the Church" sermon at the New York conference. "It is time for a new model and a fresh way. It must be a way that provides a pathway for those who embrace a more traditional conservative approach to ministry and also provides another pathway for full inclusion of all God's children."

The creation of separate pathways for conservative and progressive churches would be a complicated endeavor. The February UMC General Conference approved measures that would allow churches to "disaffiliate" from the denomination without giving up their property or assets, but they would still be required to cover their share of the denomination's unfunded pension liabilities for retired clergy, among other costs, and they would have to continue those payments for a year following disaffiliation.

Moreover, two-thirds of a church's membership would have to approve a church exit, a requirement that would be hard to meet in those churches where congregants are divided on LGBTQ-related issues. The exiting church would also need the approval of a majority of the members in its regional conference.

At this point, it is not even clear whether it would be the conservative or the progressive churches that would be most inclined to leave. While the "traditionalists" prevailed at the February meeting and appear to have the delegate strength to prevail again at the next global meeting, they are clearly in the minority among U.S. churches, and with attitudes on LGBTQ issues moderating in the United States, the conservatives are losing clout.

Wesleyan Covenant Association leaders, already organizing a UMC splinter group, estimate that nearly three-fourths of the 2020 General Conference delegates elected at this month's regional meetings are in centrist or progressive camps, and it is the WCA that is pushing hardest for a clean UMC division.

At the February General Conference, conservatives rejected a compromise "One Church" plan that would have allowed local congregations to decide on their own whether to accommodate same-sex marriages and allow the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.

Baker, a WCA leader in the Baltimore-Washington region, opposed the plan as unrealistic.

"Behind those [LGBTQ-related] distinctions is a deep theological divide," he says, "over how we see the Scriptures, how we read them, how we interpret them. We start in different places, and we end up in different places. We've built ourselves as [a place] where you can believe a lot of things and still feel at home here. We put belonging before dogma. But when an organization fails to have any unifying principles it has a hard time finding itself."

To progressive UMC leaders like Gaines-Cirelli, the conservatives' rejection of the One Church plan showed that they are the faction pushing for dissolution.

"We tried to stay in connection with those folk," she says. "They said, 'We're not interested.' And so there is a sense that something needs to change."

On that point, UMC leaders now seem to agree. Given the challenges facing the denomination in the months ahead, however, the contours of that change are far from clear.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.