Meeting in a special conference in St. Louis last week, leaders of the United Methodist Church decided to keep the denomination’s status quo when it comes to gay clergy and same-sex marriage.
Delegates voted 53-47 percent in favor of the so-called “Traditional Plan,” which keeps in place bans against the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriages. Their vote also rejected the “One Church Plan,” to abolish such restrictions.
“I don’t think anybody left that conference feeling good; there were a lot of hurt people, a lot of sadness. And I think basically what we ended up doing was kicking the can down the road,” said Tim Trent, Superintendent of the United Methodist Church’s Pensacola District.
Upholding the ban has its genesis in the Church’s “Book of Discipline” – containing the denomination’s basic beliefs and rules. But the LGBTQ issue is causing a struggle not only among churches, but for individuals as well.
“My own personal struggle is dealing with what the Bible says, and then also dealing with the self-worth and humanity of those that are gay,” Trent says. “I’m afraid the church is sending a message that ‘we don’t care about you, we don’t want you.’ I personally feel that everybody is a child of God and everybody is of worth to God.”
America’s second-largest Protestant denomination -- 12 million Methodists around the world and about seven million in the U.S. -- faces a likely surge in defections and acts of defiance after the vote to strengthen bans on same-sex marriage. Some Methodist theological schools contend that with the Traditional Plan passing, the church "will lose an entire generation of leaders in America.” Trent calls that an “overstatement.”
“From my perspective and me being a district superintendent, dealing with young people who are in seminary now, I’ve run into several who are just kind of putting their future on hold,” said Trent. “They’re waiting to see what the church is going to do.”
“I was simply disappointed and heartbroken that once again, the United Methodist Church has chosen to continue their exclusion of LGBT persons; I acknowledge and share the hurt being felt by so many good people right now,” says Doug Landreth, former president of Gay Grassroots of Northwest Florida – and a Methodist. He has tried to find a UMC to attend, including conversations with individual church leaders.
“The common response among all of those that got back with me was ‘you will feel welcome, you will be treated pleasantly,’” said Landreth. “’But this is an issue that most people will disagree with you on, and we are not going to veer off of what we hold strong,’”
Landreth believes the vote for the Traditional Plan was influenced by the number of Methodist churches outside the U.S.
“There are now many more congregations and membership in African and Latin cultures,” Landreth says. “The vote doesn’t really reflect most of the congregations in the United States.”
There has been a movement, says Landreth, in which several Methodist congregations have become what are called ‘reconciling congregations.” None of the churches in northwest Florida are among them.
Meanwhile, the UMC’s Tim Trent says they and other denominations are faced with another dilemma -- dwindling numbers on Sunday.
“There are people who are going to Middle Eastern religions,” Trent says. “They’ve been hurt, they’ve been disappointed, they’ve been disillusioned by the traditional church. And they're finding what they need spiritually in other avenues.”
Historically, churches often have been what Doug Landreth calls a “lagging participant” in social change. Landreth – who now worships with a United Church of Christ congregation –says there are some exceptions out there.
“Nationally, we have the Episcopal Church of the United States; Metropolitan Community Church, Presbyterian Church of the United States, Unitarian Universalists,” said Landreth. “There’s also networks of LGBT-affirming Baptist churches. And while the Roman Catholic Church has not really changed its position on LGBT issues, it has curtained changed its tone in recent years.”
The UMC’s Judicial Council will review the Traditional Plan in the coming months to determine whether it follows the church’s constitution, something that could result in it being overturned.