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Churches react to UMC vote

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

In a historic decision last week the United Methodist Church, the third largest Christian denomination in the United States, voted to keep its traditional opposition to same-sex marriage and gay clergy.

For local Methodist churches, the decision has been the source of difficult conversations.

“(The decision) was well-received, but there’s no rejoicing, no celebration,” said Tim Helm, senior pastor of Hanfield United Methodist Church.

Helm said although he and most of his congregation agreed with the last week’s vote to approve the Traditional Plan, which maintains the church’s stance on sexuality, he recognizes the decision has caused pain and rifts in the broader UMC community.

“One of our concerns is we want to be seen as recognizing that all people are of sacred worth,” Helm said.

The vote was close, with 53 percent of delegates at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference meeting in St. Louis voting to support the Traditional Plan.

Rob Barton, pastor of Mt. Olive United Methodist Church and an ordained elder in the UMC, said he was a supporter of another plan, the One Church Plan, which would have allowed local churches and groups of churches, known as conferences, to make their own decisions on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT clergy.

“It didn’t force anybody’s opinion on anyone, and it allowed us to live together in the same church with a diversity of opinions,” Barton said.

The One Church Plan had the support of a majority of bishops, according to the United Methodist Church’s news reports on the conference. But only 47 percent of delegates, who had the voting power last week, backed the plan.

Curtis Banker, associate pastor at Hanfield UMC, went to St. Louis as an informal “prayer delegate” to witness what he believes was a key moment in the church’s history.

“I love the United Methodist Church, our theology and our liturgy, and for me it was very clear that regardless (of outcome) this was going to be a historic event,” Banker said.

The pastor said at times it was not easy to be there.

“It wasn’t really a pleasant experience. It was very tense, very emotionally-charged,” Banker said.

Banker noted the church’s vote did more than just uphold the current position on sexuality. It also may give the church more power to enforce its position and penalize clergy who disobey.

In the past, Methodist clergy have been able to perform same-sex marriages without facing any repercussions, the pastor said.

“People could perform same-sex marriages and basically nothing would happen,” Banker said.

Under the new changes, a member of the clergy who performs a same-sex marriage could face a one-year suspension without pay.

However, the denomination’s Judicial Council still has to decide whether everything approved in the Traditional Plan is constitutional. They meet in April.

Barton said the time period leading up to the General Conference and the aftermath of the decision have been “tough” on his congregation.

The pastor said before the vote he had lifelong members of the church who were considering leaving if the traditional view was not upheld.

But now that the church has doubled down on its stance, Barton said LGBT friends who were interested in entering the ministry are telling him they might leave the Methodist church.

“They’re saying, ‘How can I stay in a church that doesn’t welcome me?’” Barton said.

The issue has caused some Methodist churches in parts of the U.S. to threaten to split from the denomination.

“I think the concern is regardless of what decision was made it would drive people away,” Helm said.

Local pastors say their focus is trying to preach a message that people of diverse beliefs on sexuality can still worship together.

“The thing that I regret about the conference is I think that … the predominant narrative is that either you accept everything that someone does or you hate them. You’re either welcoming people and accepting whatever they do, or they’re not welcome,” said Banker. “I think it’s a false dichotomy.”

Barton urged people not to turn on the Methodist church because of last week’s outcome.

“One decision of a denomination does not represent a hostile spirit toward people. That’s not the intent of the decision, and that’s not what you’ll find at your local church.

“One thing I want people to know is if you’re LGBT and come to this church, you will be loved and you will be served and you will be ministered to … and you will be able to minister to and serve others,” Barton said.