As the rule-making body of the United Methodist Church gathers in St. Louis to decide whether the church will officially bless same-sex marriage and ordain openly gay clergy, members of the denomination in North Carolina are praying and preparing for a possible split.
“I am certainly hopeful for an outcome that strengthens the church and its witness in the world,” said Hope Morgan Ward, bishop of the N.C. Conference, which covers the eastern half of the state. Reached this week as she traveled to Missouri to attend the special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, Ward said she had no sense yet of what the 864 voting delegates would decide.
Whatever their choice, Ward said, she hopes church members “can keep a heart of peace.”
“This is not a battle,” she said. “It’s not a war.”
The special session was called to accept a report from the church’s Council of Bishops, which was authorized in 2016 to create a “Commission on a Way Forward.” The commission, with members from around the world, completed its report last year, offering proposals for different ways the church could handle gay marriage and gay clergy.
Members worldwide have been awaiting the special session in hopes of a final decision by the church on how it will treat human sexuality. Current Methodist doctrine, spelled out in 1972 in the Book of Discipline, holds that all people have sacred worth. But it says, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
The church defines marriage as between one woman and one man.
Delegates at the General Conference could vote to accept any of the proposals, modify them or discard them all and come up with something else, including proposals that have been offered through petitions by other groups within the church.
The commission’s proposals are intentionally broad, with no detail on how exactly they would be put in place. They are:
▪ to leave the language in the church’s Book of Discipline as it is and enforce conformity across the denomination. This would require the addition of specific rules and consequences for breaking them, and would almost certainly result in members or entire congregations leaving the United Methodist denomination.
▪ to remove the language from the Book of Discipline and allow ministers to work “contextually.” Methodist churches operate contextually now to some degree, with ministries and traditions that vary from church to church and region to region. This option would allow pastors who want to conduct same-sex marriages to do so, for example, but would not require it of those who are opposed.
▪ to create different branches of the church, in which congregations would align more along philosophical lines than geographical ones.
Heading into the special session of the General Conference, there seems to be no consensus on what the delegates will decide. In online discussions and within churches, many have said that if the choice were up to U.S. church leaders only, same-sex weddings and gay clergy likely would be allowed. But Methodists outside the U.S., especially in Africa, where the church is growing fast, tend to be more conservative.
But some congregations, including ones in the Western N.C. Conference, have defied the bans, employing clergy members who are openly gay and holding wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples.
“Chaos and confusion’
The Rev. Paul Stallsworth, pastor of Whiteville United Methodist Church and president of the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, said Thursday that the failure of church bishops to discipline those who defy church governance has led to “chaos and confusion in the denomination.”
Stallsworth said he hopes the General Conference resists cultural pressure and votes to maintain the bans on gay marriage ceremonies and the ordination of gay clergy. But he said he and other traditionalists believe the Book of Discipline eventually should be expanded to address other sexual behavior besides homosexuality.
“There are a constellation of sexual sins that are tempting to many United Methodists,” Stallsworth said.
United Methodists prize their “big tent” approach and celebrate the different views held throughout the denomination and even within congregations. Stallsworth said he knows many United Methodists who disagree with his traditionalist beliefs, and he hopes they will stay in the denomination and work to change it through proper channels. But he said they should not be allowed to “disrupt” the church by defying its rules outright.
“If the dissenters disrupt the church, they should be held to an accounting,” he said.
‘The church has hurt and harmed’
Chris Agoranos, pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Durham, which bills itself as an inclusive congregation, said he too, hopes the denomination can hold together, but not at the expense of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer members who have long felt marginalized by the church.
“The church has hurt and harmed them and diminished their lives for far too long, and it’s time for the United Methodist Church to repent from that,” Agoranos said.
Agoranos said he hopes the General Conference votes not just to accept its LGBTQ members, but to welcome and embrace them.
“I think that we as a church are missing so much wisdom and possibility from LGBTQ folks who sense a calling (to the ministry),” he said. “And I also feel for those who are in relationships that have not been blessed by their church.”
In addition to North Carolina’s 36 voting delegates — 16 from the east and 20 from the west — dozens of United Methodists from the state are expected to travel to St. Louis to observe the General Conference. Others will watch the proceedings via livestream on the denomination’s website.
Church members are asked to pray for the proceedings on Saturday.
The General Conference convenes on Sunday and runs through Tuesday.
Both conferences of the church in North Carolina have scheduled gatherings for church members to discuss the outcome of the special session. Gatherings for the N.C. Conference, in the east, will be held on March 3. Gatherings for the Western Conference will begin March 3 and run through April 6.