Will views on same-sex marriage split one of America's largest Protestant religions?

Just how divided is the United Methodist Church?

Many of its 12 million members are engaged in an internal battle that could break up America's second largest Protestant denomination.

At issue: Whether or not to change its rules to allow same-sex weddings and LGBTQ clergy.

Charlotte pastors, along with their flocks, are taking sides.

The Rev. Val Rosenquist, who defied the rules in 2016 by marrying two male members of her congregation at First United Methodist in uptown Charlotte, said a decision "to continue the exclusion of people who are LGBTQ, to continue closing its doors, would send the message that we as a denomination are ready to die."

But the Rev. Talbot Davis of Good Shepherd, a United Methodist church in Steele Creek, suggested the denomination would be turning its back on the Bible if it agreed to anything but traditional marriage: "We are in support of the beautifully biblical picture of marriage as between a man and a woman."

Then there's the Rev. James Howell of Myers Park United Methodist, who said his biggest concern is that the denomination stay together, not split up.

He and his 5,300-member Charlotte church, Howell said, are "committed to unity and reconciliation between those that are divided on this issue. Our intent is to try to influence the rest of the denomination ... to be with us at that same place."

Two years ago, in Portland, Ore., the United Methodist Church narrowly avoided schism — breaking up — during a heated General Conference meeting of 800-plus delegates from around the world.

The delegates voted 428-405 to accept a recommendation from their bishops to delay the fiery debate on homosexuality, let a commission study the church's controversial rules on human sexuality and then take up the issue again in 2019 at a special General Conference — the denomination's top legislative body.

A lot has happened since then.

'One Church Plan'

In March, a "Commission for a Way Forward" — co-led by Florida Bishop Ken Carter, formerly pastor at Charlotte's Providence United Methodist Church — offered three very different options:

A "One Church Plan" would let individual churches and clergy decide whether to marry same-sex partners. And it would leave it to local conferences — such as the Charlotte-based one for churches in Western North Carolina — to determine who can be ordained.

A "Traditionalist Plan" would not only keep the LGBTQ prohibitions in the Book of Discipline — the denomination's governing document — but also strengthen enforcement. The book now says that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" and that "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”

A "Connectional-Conference Plan" would let geographical conferences like the one for Western North Carolina align themselves with others of like mind on LGBTQ ministry. They'd do so by joining one of three new connectional-conferences — progressive, traditionalist or allowing various approaches.

This month, the denomination's Council of Bishops ended its gathering in Chicago with a decision to recommend the "One Church Plan."

But in a sign that the Methodists and their bishops remain deeply divided on the issue, the council will also forward the other two options to that special General Conference, which is scheduled for next February in St. Louis.

Ultimately, the delegates at next year's General Conference will decide what the church's law will be going forward. And so far, many activists from both the denomination's conservative and progressive wings appear unhappy with the "One Church Plan."

"The bishops propose," said Pastor Davis of Charlotte, "but they don't vote."

The Rev. Talbot Davis is pastor of Charlotte's Good Shepherd Church, a United Methodist church in Steele Creek. In the debate within his denomination over same-sex marriage, he takes a traditionalist stand. He says the Bible and longtime Methodist teaching support marriage between a man and a woman only. David T. Foster III

'Polarized culture'

Some churches on either side of the fight have threatened to exit the denomination if the vote doesn't go their way. Two conservative megachurches in Mississippi have already bolted, citing the divisive debate over what they consider the sin of homosexuality.

Some progressives, meanwhile, have been angered recently by the defrocking of a Chattanooga pastor for marrying a same-sex couple and by the trial of a gay pastor in Cincinnati whose status as an ordained minister came into question after he married his partner.

Though the idea of unity still appeals to many Methodists, pastors and churches working for and against change have argued their causes as members of factional groups within Methodism — the Reconciling Ministries Network is for LGBTQ-friendly reform; the Wesleyan Covenant Association is standing by the Book of Discipline.

There's a third group — Uniting Methodists — for those who want the denomination to stay together and its members to agree to disagree.

Pastor Howell of Charlotte's Myers Park United Methodist is one of the national leaders of Uniting Methodists.

With liberal and conservative churches insisting that it has to be their way, Howell's group is suggesting that, for the sake of unity and mission — serving the community and world — "there's a way where we all give up something."

Unity matters, he added, "because we live in a severely polarized culture. And if the church winds up as severely polarized as the culture, we don't really have anything to offer the culture. (With a message of) 'We're just like you guys, we're as narrow-minded and divisive as the rest of you,' why would anybody bother with the church?"

The Rev. James Howell is pastor of 5,300-member Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte. He's also one of the national leaders of Uniting Methodists, a group that is working to keep the United Methodist Church from breaking apart over the divisive issues of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy. David T. Foster III

'A line in the sand'

Methodists have been around for centuries, tracing their beginnings to John Wesley, an 18th century Anglican minister in England. Circuit-riding Methodist preachers on horseback helped spread the Gospel in North Carolina, and today the United Methodist Church is the second largest denomination in the state, trailing only Southern Baptists.

Nationally, too, Southern Baptists make up the biggest Protestant denomination, followed by the United Methodists.

The United Methodist Church as a denomination wasn't founded until 1968. And it seems as if members have been arguing about homosexuality for most of the 50 years since.

About 7 million United Methodists live in the United States, where same-sex marriage is now legal. But the other 5 million members of the denomination live overseas — particularly in Africa, where homosexuality is a crime in some places.

Though Methodists are still at odds on LGBTQ issues, there's a sense that some action may finally be on the horizon.

"It's time," said Pastor Rosenquist of First United Methodist.

Other mainline Protestant denominations have also had long histories of jousting on the issue. But The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — two of the biggest — have at least opened the door in recent years to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.

They both adopted a kind of local-option approach that's similar to what the United Methodist bishops are now recommending. To try to sweeten the deal for conservatives, the Methodist bishops would also follow the lead of mainline Presbyterians and Lutherans by allowing individual congregations to say no to same-sex weddings in their sanctuaries and respecting the wishes of ministers whose conscience will not permit them to perform such marriages.

Still, many conservative Presbyterian and Lutheran congregations left their mainline denominations to protest the change and joined other denominations that do not marry same-sex partners or ordain gays and lesbians.

The same thing could happen with the United Methodist Church if conservatives lose. But with many traditionalist delegates from Africa and the South opposed to any change, it's equally possible that progressives could lose the vote.

Schism is possible either way.

"There are people who have drawn a line in the sand," said Howell. "(Some say) 'If there's any change, we're out of here.' Others say, 'If there's not this change, we're out of here.''"

'Love one another'

In Charlotte, neither Davis of conservative Good Shepherd nor Rosenquist of progressive First United Methodist expressed any interest in their churches quitting the denomination. At least for now. Exiting the United Methodist Church wouldn't be easy — the denomination owns all church properties and, unlike the situation with Presbyterians and Lutherans, there are no obvious alternative denominations either side could join.

Where do the local pastors stand on the three options to be sent to the General Conference next year?

Davis said he's "no fan" of the local option recommended by the bishops, which would erase parts of the Book of Discipline and let individual churches decide on weddings.

He said he didn't want to say much more until the bishops' full report, including the fine print, is ready July 8. A spokesman for Bishop Paul Leeland, who heads the denomination's Western North Carolina conference, said he also plans to stay publicly mum on the issue until then.

But Davis, who heads one of the country's fastest growing United Methodist churches, with 2,000-plus attendees every Sunday, sounds firmly in the traditionalist camp.

"We believe what Methodists have always believed about marriage," he said. "We believe this beautiful picture, from beginning of Scripture to end of Scripture, Genesis to Revelation, that marriage is between a man and a woman."

Asked why his church, Good Shepherd, has dropped the words "United Methodist" from its outdoor signs, Davis said that "we're inviting all people to a living relationship with Jesus, not with a denomination. ... (But) we don't hide from being Methodist. We love it."

Rosenquist, whose 700 congregants include many LGBTQ Christians, said she favors — as a first step — the adoption of the local option plan recommended by the bishops.

"It's not ideal by a long shot," she said. "It still allows churches to discriminate against LGBTQ people. And that's not ideal from a Christian perspective."

But, she said, "it achieves something for those of us who are progressive and want change."

Asked about conservative arguments that such change would amount to a repudiation of Bible passages condemning homosexuality, Rosenquist said, "The conservatives don't own the Bible. Progressives use the Bible as well and take it very seriously. ... There's all kinds of Scripture (passages) in which Jesus commands us to love one another. It doesn't ask us to love only certain types of people and not other types of people."

She added that it's time for the United Methodist Church to live up to its motto: "Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors."

The Rev. Val Rosenquist is pastor of progressive First United Methodist Church in uptown Charlotte. She and her flock favor changes in the denomination's rules that would allow churches to marry same-sex partners. Diedra Laird

'All over the place'

Pastor Howell of Myers Park United Methodist would also vote for the "One Church," or local option plan, calling it "a middle way to stay together."

The change, he said, would offer something to progressives who have found it difficult to remain in a church that's been harsh toward gays and lesbians.

And it would also accommodate large churches like his that "are all over the place" on LGBTQ issues and yet remain united as a church.

"We're thoughtful, devout people that disagree on the matter," Howell said of Myers Park United Methodist. "We love each other, and we're going to be a church."

The "One Church" plan would let clergy at Myers Park United Methodist and other churches make their own decision on whom to marry.

Just as Howell believes the issue doesn't have to break up a denomination, he also said it "doesn't have to split a congregation."

As a delegate to next year's General Conference, Howell expects to do what he can to sow peace and promote reconciliation and unity.

But he acknowledged that chances are slim the meeting, whichever way the vote goes, will end in complete harmony.

"It's hard to imagine any scenario," Howell said, "where we all leave St. Louis holding hands, singing hymns."

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Tim Funk: 704-358-5703; @timfunk