It’s not clear whether the United Methodist Church ultimately will avoid a denominational split over whether to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy. But individual members and congregations unhappy with the church’s recent decisions are not ready to walk out.
After decades of debate on whether to relax the church’s ban on gay marriage and clergy, some United Methodists thought the matter finally would be settled by a specially called worldwide General Conference held in February.
When conference delegates voted to approve what became known as the Traditional Plan — upholding the gay bans — but to have the church’s Judicial Council review it to make sure it adhered to the church constitution, some Methodists thought that would be the final word.
The Judicial Council released its decision last week, upholding the essential elements of the Traditional Plan.
And still, the church did not split.
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the N.C. Conference, which covers the eastern half of the state, said, “It will take a miracle” to avoid a schism, “because the views are very entrenched and compromise seems to elude us.”
But so far, she said, “I do not hear of congregations making preparations to go.”
The Western Conference, covering the other half of the state, is taking a similar wait-and-see stance, saying, “Faithful United Methodists across our conference disagree and we are continuing to work for long term solutions in the United Methodist Church. While the debate continues, United Methodist churches across the globe are still answering their call to worship, teach, serve and love. General Conference will meet again in May 2020 to continue the conversation.”
With the church’s governing body narrowly voted to hold to, and even strengthen, the bans on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, observers expected that some more liberal church members and whole congregations would withdraw from the United Methodist Church. Conference delegates approved rules for churches to “disaffiliate” from the denomination, laying out how the process would work.
It’s also conceivable that some more conservative members or congregations could become frustrated with the denomination if it doesn’t now more aggressively enforce the rules on sexuality. They, too, could choose to disaffiliate.
But a hallmark of Methodism has been its “big tent” quality, touting itself as a place where believers can disagree on some matters of theology while working together in ministry.
“We’re all so deep in our Methodist roots ... and we are so connected to one another, that everybody is kind of pausing to figure out how to live into that,” said the Rev. Liz Roberts of Fairmont United Methodist Church in Raleigh. Fairmont is one of a half-dozen Reconciling United Methodist churches in the Triangle, which actively welcome LGBTQ worshipers.
“Our church has no desire to be anything but part of the larger church, and we’re a progressive church,” Roberts said. “One of my colleagues who also serves a progressive church said before the Conference, ‘If the Traditional Plan passes, we’re out.’
“But they’re not out,” she said. “They’re still here. I don’t know what that means, except that we value each other a lot.
“For me, the disagreement is really about how we’re going to read scripture and interpret it and apply it to our lives. I’m perfectly willing ... to coexist with someone who is going to interpret it differently. But I am called to serve a particular group of people in a particular place, and by the rules, I can’t do that fully.”
The lack of a massive walkout so far doesn’t mean there is no dissent within the church. Meetings have been scheduled by those hoping to find strategies for resisting the decision of the General Conference, at least in U.S. churches, where members are more accepting of LGBTQ people than in some other places around the world. There is talk of withholding annual payments by congregations to the United Methodist Church as a way of applying pressure. There are discussions of what a split denomination could look like.
And, Roberts said, since General Conference, there has been a rise in the creation of “safe spaces” for LGBTQ Methodists, including new Sunday School classes.
The Rev. Paul Stallsworth, pastor of Whiteville United Methodist Church and president of the conservative Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, said that anyone or any congregation unable to follow the rules set out under the Traditional Plan should be able to leave the church without being penalized. But he said he hopes the church can avoid schism.
“We are a democratic body where decisions can be reversed by the General Conference, decisions can be tweaked, they can be improved by the body.”
This process, he said, “Will not end until Christ returns in glory.”