United Methodist CHURCH Ponders GAY ACCEPTANCE
It is hard to predict what will happen when the United Methodist Church brings its decades-old conflict over same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy to St. Louis.
But many worry the looming church-wide debate on human sexuality will splinter the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination.
The United Methodist Church’s top policy making body will spend Sunday through Tuesday in St. Louis deciding whether to keep the language in the global church’s rule book that bans same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from serving as ministers. United Methodists disagree on what their denomination should do.
The topic has become increasingly contentious in recent years, as more United Methodist clergy have come out as gay. United Methodists are among the last mainline Protestant denominations to address the issue, and some worry it could cause a major rift in the church.
“It’s a little nerve wracking for a group of people you don’t really know to make a decision about you,” said Daron Smith, who’s gay and a lifelong United Methodist in St. Louis.
This weekend, more than 860 delegates from across the world will convene for a four-day conference, where they’ll debate and likely vote on one of three proposals.
One would allow same-sex weddings and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy — while also giving church conferences outside the U.S. the power to prohibit these practices.
Another more conservative plan would maintain current church policy and cut ties with regional church conferences that don’t comply.
A third proposal would reorganize the church into three “values-based” groups and let each group make its own rules.
“We’ve tried to do our best due diligence [and] offer models that would allow us to remain together as a united church,” said United Methodist Council of Bishops President, Ken Carter.
Any choice the 864 voting delegates from across the world make during this special session of the General Conference could cause some in the more than 12 million-member church to leave for good.
“I think that we are in an unprecedented time in the church and we will need the power of the holy spirit to guide us through this season,” said Bishop Bill McAlilly, who leads the United Methodist Church in much of Tennessee and western Kentucky.
He purposely has not aligned himself with any of the proposals up for consideration in St. Louis because he believes he is called to be a bishop of the whole church, McAlilly said.
Despite his neutral stance, he was thrust into the heart of this conflict in an extraordinarily public way in 2016.
McAlilly unexpectedly found himself presiding over a tense slice of the nearly two-week long General Conference in Portland, Oregon that paved the way for this year’s specially called meeting that is trying to settle the denomination’s positions on human sexuality while maintaining church unity.
Bishops do not vote, but they oversee General Conference debates. While presiding, McAlilly was asked to step down by one delegate and accused by another of signaling how to vote.
McAlilly, who called the experience surreal, said he was unfairly pegged as biased and only trying to keep up with the debate, its complex rules and a new electronic voting system.
The moment illustrated just how strained the church’s sexuality conflict had become.
But McAlilly received support to continue presiding that afternoon. He did so as the delegates decided in a close vote to put the debate on hold so a commission could find a way for the church to move forward together.
“It’s not lost on many people that what occurred during my time as the presiding officer is that we overcame a stalemate around the human sexuality question,” McAlilly said. “Because we were able to hold steady, the Commission on the Way Forward allowed us to take a breath and give thoughtful, prayerful consideration to our next step.”
Jenaba Waggy, a bisexual Vanderbilt Divinity student pursuing ordination in the United Methodist Church, will be in the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis watching closely as it it all unfolds.
The outcome could impact her future as a pastor in the church, but Waggy also will be there as part of her independent study course on United Methodist theology.
“I think simply having something that we can move forward with and stop being in this state of anxiety about who we are as United Methodists, I think that’s the best thing,” Waggy said.
She supports the One Church Plan because it lets those who want to stay in the church acknowledge their disagreement and build from that. But Waggy thinks people will leave regardless and she is already grieving that prospect.
The United Methodists are part of a long line of Protestant denominations that have grappled with the issue of human sexuality in recent years, including Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.
The difference, said historian of American religion Marie Griffith, is that United Methodists have held together a vast and disparate coalition longer.
“Some lean very progressive on the issue, some lean very conservative,” said Griffith, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s very hard to know how you’re going to hold people — especially people at the edges of that spectrum — together.”
Regardless of the outcome, it may be months or years before any changes to church policy go into effect, particularly if they involve constitutional amendments.
But in St. Louis, Daron Smith and his husband Chris Finley aren’t giving up hope.
“If the decision doesn’t go our way this time, we’ll keep fighting,” he said. “The church belongs to everyone, not just a select few.”
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