Updated, 10:30 a.m. Thursday: The meeting this week ended with a commitment to resist the plan approved in February at the General Conference; the church leaders present are not yet calling for a split. Some churches will continue to marry and ordain LGBTQ members.
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The United Methodist Church is in crisis.
In February, the General Conference of the church held a special session in St. Louis, Missouri, to decide whether to allow marriage and ordination for its LGBTQ members.
Traditionalists, the conservative wing of the denomination, won a vote that not only affirmed language that says the "practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" and prohibits same gender marriage and ordination, but took the prohibition even further. They added provisions that would suspend and even defrock clergy who disobeyed the rules laid out in the Book of Discipline.
Pastor Adam Hamilton of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, left the voting session to stream a live video to his congregation voicing his shock and dismay.
“I want to see us continue to work to have the United Methodist Church stay together,” he said directly into the camera. “But right now they’re voting on provisions that will dismantle parts of the denomination which brings me a great deal of pain.”
His voice broke up with emotion.
Convening a way forward
This week, more than 600 members from United Methodist conferences across the country are meeting at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, to hammer out next steps.
Mainly moderates and progressives, they’ll break up into groups, consider innovative options and pray.
Hamilton says he has three priorities.
“How do we remove the painful language and policies that are harmful to LGBTQ persons?” he wonders. “How can we be a church for the 20,000 churches in the center? And then how do we look at this as an opportunity for reforming the church?"
A personal journey
The United Methodist Church has been debating inclusion for decades.
Hamilton himself has struggled with the issue. While he says he’s always welcomed LGBTQ members, he wasn’t always able to reconcile his feelings with scripture, particularly Leviticus, from which comes the language about same-sex interactions as an "abomination."
“I believe these scriptures … have to be seen in light of their historical and cultural context in the same way we’ve looked at scripture related to slavery, hitting children with rods and subordination of women,” he says. “And (these passages) do not reflect what I see in the LGBTQ persons in my own congregation.”
Traditionalists and progressives
A minority of Methodist churches in the United States and a growing number from Africa, Asia and the Middle East are more rigid about their interpretation of the Bible on this issue. In some countries, same-gender sexual relations are punishable by death.
Most U.S. churches says they accept LGBTQ members, even clergy, as long as they are celibate, which is not required of others in the church.
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, a United Methodist Pastor and vice president of Good News, a Texas-based, conservative news source for the church, acknowledges Hamilton’s leadership, but says his constituents can't abide his views on LGBTQ inclusion.
"Unfortunately, on this particular issue, (Hamilton) is out of step with the majority of the church,” he says. “As a result he’s seen some of his influence lessen.”
At the other end of the church spectrum on same-gender marriage and ordination is Pastor Jeremy Smith.
He says he grew up in Oklahoma, in the buckle of the Bible Belt, where in school he used Hamilton’s books and resources.
But today, he leads the United Methodist Church of downtown Seattle, a progressive congregation where he says they long ago decided to marry and ordain LGBTQ members.
“I welcome him to this movement, however there are people and efforts that have been in this for a very long time,” he says. “And we don’t need to reinvent the wheel going our own way.”
Even in the Church of the Resurrection’s backyard, Methodist congregations are joining the network of so-called Reconciling Ministries, a small but growing group of churches that have made the LGBTQ issue the center of their social justice mission.
The Rev. Gayla Rapp, senior pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, says her church joined after the February conference. She realized the stricter restrictions would drive LGBTQ Methodists and allies away from the church.
“I think there are people that have been deeply hurt by the church,” she says. “And when you’ve been hurt too many times you start saying ‘I don’t want to be abused anymore.’”
Ready to cut ties
That was the case for Chris Curry and his husband Don. They got married in Canada 22 years ago. For almost a decade, they’ve been active members of the Church of the Resurrection. They took the vote in February as a sign they were no longer welcome and decided to leave.
But then they got a personal call from Pastor Adam Hamilton. He asked them to stay and to give him time to navigate the likely split in the church. With missions, hospitals, universities and churches, Hamilton told Curry the economics are complicated.
“Give me a year to figure it out,” Hamilton asked Curry.
The Church of the Resurrection has lost members who see Pastor Hamilton bending too far to the left. But he says others are joining for the same reason. As the Pied Piper for Methodists in the middle, he knows he’s destined to face vitriol and grief from both sides.
“What I’ve found is at nearly 55,” he says, “I’m less worried about the negative jabs that come with some frequency than I am about trying to figure out what is the best way forward and where God is calling us to go.”