United Methodists face vote on LGBTQ issues. Will it rip the church apart?

Clarification: This story was modified to reflect that First United Methodist Church in Arlington and Arborlawn United Methodist Church have Sunday school classes that are reconciling communities but are not reconciling churches.

On a Tuesday in January, pastor Katie Lewis was surprised to have even 26 members of the United Methodist Church of Colleyville attend her study group on human sexuality and same-sex marriage.

In a group of mostly middle-aged white congregants, opinions ranged widely. One man said he felt pressure to accept LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage from “more liberal” members from the East and West Coasts. Others quickly disputed that idea, saying the issue is a concern in Colleyville as well.

“Whether you know it or not, someone in your life is struggling to be accepted for who they are,” one woman told the group.

Lewis said she felt the conversation was necessary ahead of the United Methodist General Conference this month in St. Louis. The conference meets every four years, but a special session was called to vote on a plan regarding same-sex marriage and the acceptance of LGBTQ clergy in the church.

The United Methodist Church faces the possibility of a schism because of the vote. It’s inevitable that people will leave the church because of how polarizing the issue is, according to congregants, clergy and experts. It’s also possible entire congregations could leave the denomination.

United Methodists represent the second-largest protestant denomination in the United States, behind churches that are part of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Commission on a Way Forward

Lewis leads discussion using the Bible and the Book of Discipline, which is regarded as the law and doctrine of the United Methodist Church. She encourages attendees to think about how their life experiences have shaped their opinions and interpretations.

“There’s a lot of lack of understanding about Scripture, and knowledge and experience,” Lewis said. “This study is called ‘Living Faithfully,’ and my hope for our United Methodist Church is that whatever happens in February, love would be at the core.”

After the 2016 General Conference, the Commission on a Way Forward was appointed to study Scripture and come up with plans addressing sexuality in United Methodist churches around the world. The commission’s report notes that the church was founded in 1968 but the present-day language about human sexuality was added to the Book of Discipline in 1972. The Book of Discipline is updated and published after every general conference.

Of the three most prominent plans, the Council of Bishops recommends the One Church Plan, which would allow churches and pastors to make decisions based on their specific congregations and conferences.

That means that United Methodist pastors would be allowed, but not required, to perform same-sex marriages. But marriages would not be performed in the church unless the congregation votes to approve them before the first one.

The One Church Plan would allow annual conferences – regional United Methodist leadership bodies – to ordain LGBTQ pastors but they would not be forced to. An extra bishop would be made available if the assigned bishop of the conference were to be uncomfortable with the ordination.

The Traditional Plan would strengthen language in the Book of Discipline to enforce current prohibitions on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. It would also allow conferences and individual churches to leave the denomination.

The Connectional Conference Plan would create three new conferences and each one would serve either traditional, moderate or progressive beliefs. Lewis said this plan is least likely to pass because it requires several amendments to the United Methodist Constitution.

While the One Church Plan offers flexibility to churches, some Methodists say it’s a shallow solution to a more complex issue.

Marco Rosas, executive director of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, attends Arlington Heights United Methodist Church. He said there hasn’t been much discussion on the upcoming vote from the pulpit of his church, but it’s a conversation that congregation members are having among themselves.

“I feel kind of weird about it,” Rosas said. “It’s weird to move forward with part of the congregation embracing the notion of ‘all are welcome’ and then the rest are stuck in the past. Personally, I would like a plan that’s more progressive and recognizes LGBTQ marriage in the church and accepts LGBTQ clergy.”

Gary Winburne attends the United Methodist Church of Colleyville and Lewis’ discussion group. He said he joined the group because he wanted to hear from fellow congregants about their beliefs. He describes himself as a traditionalist and said he will most likely leave the United Methodist Church if the One Church Plan is passed.

“I think as Christians we are called to love all peoples but we don’t have to necessarily condone their actions,” Winburne said. “I believe the Bible is very straightforward on that. While It doesn’t specifically mention homosexuality, it does talk in many places about sexual immorality. To me, the ultimate decision has already been made because the Bible is Scripture and the Bible tells me how to live my life.”

Impact on local United Methodist churches

Dr. David Grant, a professor of religion at Texas Christian University, said the outcome of the conference will have a ripple effect on the entire church.

“The impact on the United Methodist Church will be great,” Grant said. “Whatever is decided, the chances are that a significant number of United Methodists will depart the denomination.”

Dr. Elizabeth Oldmixon is a political scientist at the University of North Texas who studies the intersections of religion, politics and LGBTQ identities. She said it’s too early to say how deep the effects of the issue will be on the United Methodist Church.

“This is the only issue where the language of schism has been elevated to this level,” Oldmixon said. “I don’t know how widespread it would be but it’ll definitely happen.”

She explained that it will be difficult to cater to everyone’s beliefs with the current plans, even if they are amended.

“If you’re a traditionalist, you don’t like that language will be taken out and changed,” Oldmixon said. “If you’re progressive, you’re not satisfied because there’s nothing new that affirms any other sexualities.”

Bishop Mike Lowry is the resident bishop of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church and oversees more than 300 churches. He noted that whichever plan is voted on will be debated and amended, and whatever decision is made will not take effect until January 2020, at the earliest.

However, he said he stands behind the current practices of the church, which say “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

“I’ve been clear that I do not endorse any of the three plans,” Lowry said. “I support the current stance of the United Methodist Church. Our understanding that love is for all, and Christian marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Lowry is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a membership organization that supports orthodox United Methodist beliefs. He’s quoted in an association brochure saying, “Friends in Christ, I invite and encourage you to consider joining with me as a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. I do so as a call to the highest level of doctrinal integrity and missional commitment in the name of our Lord.“

Lowry said he is not advocating for people to leave the church, and that joining the Wesleyan Covenant Association is not a decision or a pledge to leave the United Methodist Church.

In November, the Wesleyan Covenant Association held its first global legislative assembly where members discussed developing a contingency plan to part from the United Methodist Church, depending on the vote in February. Lowry was one of three bishops who spoke at the meeting, according to United Methodist News Service.

On Jan. 25, the Wesleyan Covenant Association released the results of a survey it conducted, which found that 92 percent of respondents wanted an exit provision included in whatever plan is voted on at the General Conference.

“Whatever plan the special [2019] General Conference adopts it should include a gracious and generous way for local churches to leave with all their property and assets, providing said local churches fulfill all outstanding financial obligations they have to their annual conferences,” the news release reads.

United Methodist churches and properties are currently owned by the denomination.

North Texas Methodist churches prepare for the vote

United Methodist churches in North Texas are addressing the issue on their own terms. The organization Reconciling Ministries Network facilitates discussions and works to make churches inclusive of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. A map produced by the organization identifies 22 United Methodist churches in North Texas as “reconciling communities.”

First United Methodist Church in Arlington, which hosts a Sunday school class listed as a reconciling community, provides information and resources on its website and held two informational sessions in the fall of 2018 about the Commission on a Way Forward. Arborlawn United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, another church with a reconciling Sunday school class , hosted an event called “And Yet We Are One!” to bring together those who support the One Church Plan and to discuss it further.

At First United Methodist Church in downtown Fort Worth, senior pastor Dr. Tim Bruster said the issue has been discussed among leadership. The church plans to hold informational meetings before and after the conference with the congregation, he said. But ultimately, he said, the church is focused on local affairs, such as expanding its facilities to accommodate recent growth.

“Just as is the case with other matters, there are different perspectives on this,” Bruster said in an email. “We have not taken a poll, of course, but my sense is that the majority of the church, regardless of their own understanding of the issues at hand, wants the denomination to stay together and remain strong in its global mission.”

Bruster, who will serve on the Central Texas delegation at the General Conference, said he supports the One Church Plan because it would allow churches and clergy to be most effective in their respective congregations.

“Whatever happens, our church will continue ministry the way we do now,” Bruster said. “We will be the same church.”

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram