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United Methodist churches may sever ties with their denomination, and some congregations could face a membership exodus over the church governing body’s vote to reject same-sex marriage and refuse the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors.
“The tension has been building within the United Methodist Church for a while,” said Randall Styers, associate professor of religion and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I think an awful lot of progressive Methodists are very, very unhappy about this.”
Many analysts say a schism is likely following Tuesday’s decision to uphold doctrine deeming homosexuality to be sinful. Delegates to the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in St. Louis voted 438-384 to adopt the Traditional Plan, one of three proposals to address divisions over LGBT issues.
“It’s a matter that has been schismatic for denominations and individual churches for many years now,” said Andrew Wakefield, dean of Campbell University’s divinity school and a New Testament and Greek professor. “Why is this such a big deal? Because somebody gets to keep the church building.”
Beyond land and property, Wakefield said, membership is central to multigenerational Methodist families’ community ties and their spiritual heritage.
“There is, again, a sense of identity — ‘I was married in that church,’ ‘My parents are buried there,’ ‘My child was baptized there,’” he added. “Those roots can be far more significant than any monetary values involved.”
Methodist delegates debated three measures that sought to resolve questions over LGBT issues. The Traditional Plan, which won adoption, defines church-sanctioned marriage as the union of one man and one woman and forbids bishops from ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexual” people as members of the clergy.
The plan requires United Methodist congregations to commit to upholding denominational teaching on human sexuality in an annual vote and allows them to withdraw from the UMC and retain their assets and liabilities. Pastors will face a one-year suspension if they preside over a same-sex wedding and will be stripped of clergy credentials if they do so a second time.
Alternatives considered at the St. Louis conference included the One-Church Plan — which the United Methodist Council of Bishops had endorsed — and the Connectional Conference Plan.
The bishop-backed One-Church Plan would have allowed regional bodies to decide whether to perform same-sex marriages and ordain LGBT clergy in order to keep traditional and progressive factions under the United Methodist umbrella. The Connectional Conference Plan would have created separate branches of the 12-million-member denomination but maintained a centralized structure.
Styers noted that many American delegates favored liberalizing church teaching on LGBT issues, but United Methodists from Africa coalesced behind a fundamentalist viewpoint.
As the Traditional Plan is implemented, it is likely some congregations will formally split from the United Methodist Church. Newly independent churches that support same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy could form their own synods. Congregations that vote to remain with the international body but have progressive factions could see membership dwindle.
It’s also possible that some churches will defy UMC teaching but decline to leave of their own volition, triggering disciplinary proceedings that could result in their removal.
The Rev. Tuck Taylor, pastor of West Nash United Methodist Church in Wilson, said the Traditional Plan will be appealed to the UMC’s judicial council in April and portions of it could be struck down.
“I am heartbroken and hurting for all our LGBT siblings and their families,” Taylor said. “West Nash’s doors and hearts are open to all, and that will continue.”
Taylor said the church body has not discussed whether there will be any change in West Nash’s affiliation with the United Methodist Church. With the appeal looming in April, many congregations may remain in a wait-and-see mode.
“There’s just a lot of moving pieces right now,” she said.
For fellow Protestants who feel the church should welcome LGBT people, this week’s vote was a source of concern and disappointment.
“I believe God is love,” said David Finnegan-Hosey, chaplain and director of campus ministries at Barton College, which is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ denomination. “It saddens me when churches which are called to be places of healing become places of hurt. I know many of them (Methodists) are feeling uncertain about the next step or the way forward.”
Finnegan-Hosey said he hopes churches’ acceptance of LGBT people and married same-sex couples will evolve over time.
“I would like to believe that as our understanding continues to grow and develop that there will be a broad consensus on the topic,” he said. “We can have a diversity of belief, but I do believe we are heading in a direction as a church of having a deepening understanding of God’s love for all people.”
A DOCTRINAL DIVIDE
Like other mainline Protestants, Methodists vary in their interpretation of New Testament verses addressing sexual morality. Conservative Christians say Paul’s writings in Romans, 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy are clear and consistent in their description of gay relationships as sinful.
Some scholars, however, say more context is needed, noting that openly gay people in exclusive, committed relationships weren’t documented in New Testament culture and contend Paul was condemning infidelity with same-sex partners or the practice of men having sex with underage boys.
“There was no such thing as same-sex marriage in biblical times,” Wakefield said. “What was prevalent in Roman and Greek society was the use of slaves for sexual gratification, both heterosexual and homosexual.”
Whether words like arsenokoitai — a Pauline coinage formed by combining root words meaning “a male” and “mat” or “bed” — describe consensual adult same-sex relationships or liaisons with male prostitutes or sex slaves remains in dispute among theologians and Bible scholars.
“There always needs to be humility involved,” Wakefield said. “It turns out that language is a lot more flexible than a mathematical formula. The Bible is written in words, not numbers. Words have context. One of the big problems we have is we look to the Bible to give us concrete answers to the questions we have. The Bible is giving us answers to a different set of questions, and we are trying to extrapolate from that.”
While Christians may want to read the Bible as a rulebook, Styers said it’s important to understand the time period in which a divinely inspired book was written and the audience for which it was intended. Applying it to modern times isn’t an exact science and may require believers to accept some degree of uncertainty.
“For 2,000 years, people have read that assortment of texts and come up with very, very different interpretations of morality surrounding these issues,” Styers said.
“We want to think Jesus said, ‘I give you the truth.’ He said, ‘I am the Truth,’” Wakefield offered. “We don’t have the truth — we have a relationship with the Truth. If it’s about a relationship, this is going to be a process.”
While Tuesday’s vote cements Methodist doctrine for the time being, academics say LGBT Christians are likely to find greater acceptance across Protestant denominations in coming decades due to widespread support for gay rights and same-sex marriage among young adults.
“I really do think there is a sea change among younger people surrounding these issues,” Styers said. “Among younger people, that issue just seems completely old and settled. It’s just very clear to me that the world has changed dramatically. It’s not an issue for my students at all, and they can’t understand why it was an issue before.”
Culture can and does shape churches’ application of the Bible to social issues. Wakefield compared the feud over same-sex relationships to divorce, which was more controversial in Christian circles 50 years ago.
“Most Protestant churches have decided that this is an issue that we don’t have to split up over,” he said. “We may not agree over whether or not a divorced person should remarry. Is divorce what God intended for marriage? No, it’s not what God intended, but how do we live with the brokenness that is our reality?”
For LGBT Christians, a denominational decree that their sexual orientation is sinful may cause visceral pain that makes objective study and reasoned discussion difficult. Likewise, Methodists who were raised to equate gay relationships with sin may feel the very foundations of their faith shaken when that belief is challenged.
“There is a deep anxiety here, a sense of threat to our identity and the way we can live in the world,” Wakefield said. “Once we begin to feel the sense of threat, it becomes very hard to have an actual conversation about the issue.”