The United Methodist Church may not be as united as its name suggests, following a divisive 53 to 47 percent vote this week that reinforced the church’s policy that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
But at Green Street United Methodist Church, more than 200 congregation members and others gathered in solidarity Saturday despite the contentious outcome.
A rainbow and a transgender pride flag each hung from the balcony of the chapel in support and defiance.
“I feel sick in my soul for what the church has done, but I’m still standing and I’m standing beside you …” retired bishop Charlene Kammerer said, garnering applause at the Green Street church’s “Next Step” event. “I cannot be silent in such injustice and, in my opinion, cruelty.”
During a special session Tuesday, the General Conference upheld its policy to forbid LGBTQ clergy members and to prohibit the officiating of same-sex marriages.
The decision, voted on by 864 delegates from around the world, also strengthened any digression from the rules as a chargeable offense.
Pastors who perform same-sex weddings could face a minimum of a one-year suspension without pay and, on second offense, be stripped of their credentials, as outlined in Petition 90042, which passed.
The Green Street church took a stance years ago when it decided it wouldn’t conduct any marriages until same-sex marriages were allowed in the church.
“I have never felt ashamed of the (United Methodist) church until this,” Kammerer said. “It’s embarrassing. It’s unforgivable what some of the delegates have faced.”
Those in attendance at Green Street Saturday — many of whom donned rainbow scarves, shirts and ties or “Ally” buttons — emphasized that the decision made does not reflect who they are as a church.
“We didn’t do this. This is something that was done to us,” said longtime member Bonnie Crouse. “It’s a hostile takeover, like being kicked in the chest by a horse or something. I’m still numb. We are trying to recover.”
Many warned that deciding on the “Traditional Plan,” which was chosen over two other more progressive plans presented at the conference, would result in a splintering of the church.
While Green Street has not made any decisions to depart from the church yet, some local members are considering severing ties.
“The United Methodist Church has shown me who they are,” said Green Street member Kevin Mundy. “I feel like staying is like telling an abused wife, ‘Stay with him.’”
Mundy, who is gay, said he was initially reluctant to join the church, but felt nothing but love and acceptance when he became the Green Street church’s choir director 10 years ago.
He became a member a couple years later, despite the affiliation to United Methodism, he said, and was in attendance Saturday when members were briefed on the conference decision.
“As a gay man, I’m grappling with how to reconcile my love for this church here and this huge step backward by the Methodist Church,” Mundy said.
Wake Forest University senior Anna Grace Guercio echoed that she would rethink staying in the United Methodist Church after this decision.
“I wouldn’t necessarily continue in this church after college,” said Guercio, who attends G3 Church, which holds its services at Meadowlark Elementary. “I wasn’t super surprised by the decision, but certainly disappointed.”
Guercio, who is a member of the Wesley campus ministry, said she thinks the decision to reaffirm its position on homosexuality will alienate some church-goers.
“My guess is a small proportion will leave because they disagree,” she said. “I think a very marginalized community is being further marginalized in a space where everyone should feel love and acceptance.”
A global governance
For many churches across the U.S., the path from here is murky.
Wake Forest School of Divinity professor Tom Frank said many people are still in a state of shock and are trying to figure out where to go from here.
“The United Methodist Church is going to have to end. No question about it,” Frank said. “We can’t go on with this shared government model. It’s not workable.”
While many U.S. delegates supported a progressive change, the decision was not theirs alone to make, Frank said.
About 43 percent of the delegates were from abroad, mostly from Africa, and overwhelmingly supported upholding the LGBTQ bans, the Associated Press reported.
Frank said the global government structure of the church poses a unique problem in that the customs and laws of other countries come into play.
Roman Catholicism is the only other church he said he knows of that is governed globally.
“Other Protestant denominations do not have shared governments across nations and cultures,” said Frank, who has penned two books on United Methodism.
“It makes it very complicated. Many of the delegates come from nations where there is almost no tradition of democracy and where homosexuality is actually a crime.”
Frank said that churches in some countries could face repercussions by their governments if the Traditional Plan had been disbanded.
Of the church’s 12.6 million members worldwide, about 7 million are in the U.S.
“The vast majority of the U.S. was in favor of the ‘One Church Plan,’ which was kind of a live-and-let-live stance that our views on human sexuality shouldn’t be church-dividing,” Frank said. “There’s no question if it was just U.S. delegates, it would’ve passed.”
The “One Church Plan” would have allowed pastoral discretion at individual churches on whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members, but was surprisingly shot down during the three-day conference.
Frank — who is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church — said the amendment was controversial the day it was introduced and passed in 1972, with many calling it unwise. It has been a topic of heated debate ever since.
A rare special session was called to address the amendment ahead of next year’s meeting of the General Conference, which typically convenes every four years.
Frank said he expects churches will take the year ahead of the 2020 meeting to organize, strategize and decide whether they will stay or go.
“The decision has done enormous damage to the U.S. church,” Frank said. “I hope a split can be amicable. Divorces usually aren’t.”