‘The United Methodist Church died:’ What the LGBTQ vote means to Rock Hill churches

The morning after United Methodist Church delegates voted to double down on the denomination’s ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy members, one Rock Hill church hung up rainbow banners.

It’s not a protest, necessarily – and it’s not a condemnation of the denomination as a whole. Aldersgate United Methodist Church Pastor Steve Holler said the rainbow ribbons were put up to show support for a community in mourning.

“It was done to recognize that there is a hurting community among us,” Holler said. “And when I say us, I mean us. They’re a part of who we are. They are our neighbors, and they are hurting right now. And we are called to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. They’re weeping. So, so are we.”

The newly approved Traditional Plan will uphold language in the Methodists’ “Book of Discipline” that says all people are “of sacred worth,” but that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” AP News reported. The plan would also require stricter enforcement of those rules.

Some local Methodist leaders, including Winthrop University Wesley leader Reverend Ricky Howell, believe a split in the United Methodist Church is unavoidable. Others hope the denomination can heal the cracks.

Rock Hill United Methodist district superintendent the Rev. Joe Long said there are 69 Methodist churches in the district, which includes Chester, Kershaw, Lancaster and York counties. He hopes Methodist churches can focus what unites them instead of divides them.

“We’re encouraging our churches to stay focused on doing the work that we’re called to do of making disciples for Jesus Christ and to keep each other in prayer,” Long said. “There are many mixed feelings about the decision that was made at general conference but the call of God to love all people and to share the good news of Jesus Christ is still the primary work that we’re about.”

Long said the language in the “Book of Discipline” does not condone the practice of homosexuality, but does not condemn the people.

But Holler said there isn’t a meaningful difference between the two.

“That whole idea is simply put as: love the sinner, hate the sin,” Holler said. “And that comes from a presumption that homosexuality is a sin.”

Holler said almost everyone who has grown up in a church knows the verse John 3:16. But not many can remember what comes next.

“Few people know John 3:17: ‘for God did not come to the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved,’” he said. “And if God didn’t come to condemn, I want to say, who the hell are we to do otherwise?”

Holler said the church doesn’t necessarily have many LGBTQ members, but many members have family and friends who identify as LGBTQ.

Howell at Winthrop University said he thinks Wesley, the Methodist campus ministry, is known as a safe, affirming place for all students, including LGBTQ students.

“If you tell someone that they are ‘incompatible’ with God’s love, I just can’t even fathom coming down on that side of the issue,” Howell said. “This is obviously a personal issue. And I have students that I love and care about that are struggling with this every day.”

Howell said the group holds worship services every Monday. So before the vote was finalized Tuesday, he took time to talk to Winthrop students about the coming decision.

“My personal thought is just disappointment and frustration, anger,” Howell said. “Just feelings that part of what we believe as the United Methodist Church, one of the things that our founder John Wesley was big on and that I committed to was ‘do no harm.’ This is one of the situations where the church, in my opinion, is actively choosing to do harm.”

Howell said many churches will choose to leave the United Methodist Church after the controversial vote.

“I think it’s inevitable,” he said. “I think the United Methodist Church died on Tuesday. We still call ourselves that for now, but I think it was pretty clear by the division at that conference. We are obviously not able to find common ground on this issue.”

Many members of Aldersgate United Methodist Church, who helped hang rainbow banners from the church’s sign, said they were disappointed but not surprised by the vote. Fran Threatt said the vote for more inclusive language would have passed if the organization was just American churches.

About 30 percent of the United Methodist delegates came from African countries, the AP reported, and many of those delegates supported the LGBTQ bans.

Lauren Adams, church secretary at Aldersgate, said she’s been at Aldersgate since she was 4. She wishes there was a way to make the vote country-by-country.

“I’m just proud of this church for taking the stand, still wanting to love everybody and be accepting of everybody,” Adams said. “This is an awesome place.”

Aldersgate member Peggy Palmer said almost immediately after members put out the rainbow ribbons, a woman pulled into the church parking lot and asked them about it.

“She just seemed very appreciative that there was a Methodist church that was stating we did not agree with the way the vote went,” Aldersgate member Sherilyn Brewer said. “And that anyone was welcome here. She just kind of choked up and seemed emotional and said thank you.”

Brewer said she thinks LGBTQ people are singled out for criticism.

“The phrase ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ is only aimed at the LGBTQ (community),” Brewer said “We are all sinners, every one of us.”

Holler said it’s been hard to see divisiveness in the church following the vote.

“The harshest words have come from self-confessed Christians, who use a vitriol and a hatred, a language that I could not imagine Jesus tolerating,” Holler said. “And that’ll break your heart. Except you know, I was there one time in my life, too. I had to grow up.”

But he said he wouldn’t go against the ban and marry same-sex couples if asked.

“I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I am not a one issue voter. And I love my church too much to say I’m going to risk my vocation on one issue. I will love all people, I will reach out to them, I will make sure that they’re treated with dignity. And sometimes I’ll mess up. But it won’t be from lack of trying.”

He said the United Methodist Church is focused on mission work, and he believes in their outreach, even though he is disappointed in the vote.

Palmer also is disappointed. But she says she’ll keep inviting people to her church.

“We disagree with what happened, but we are still a loving, caring, open congregation.”

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Hannah Smoot reports on money and power for The Herald, covering York, Lancaster and Chester counties. She has been a reporter at The Herald since June 2017. Contact Hannah at 803-329-4068, hgsmoot@heraldonline.com or follow her on Twitter @hgsmoot.