When the Rev. Mel Arant stands behind the pulpit of his Upstate South Carolina church this Sunday morning, he plans to raise a subject that’s caused him and the worldwide United Methodist Church much grief over the past week.
“This was a terrible experience,” said Arant, the pastor of Pendleton United Methodist Church. He was one of the 16 Palmetto State delegates to the international conference of the United Methodist Church that last week was torn over the church’s stance on LGBT acceptance and inclusion.
“I think that what we found is a deep wound, and we don’t know how to treat it yet,” Arant said. “What’s going to happen in your local churches is pastors like myself are going to stand up on Sunday morning — we know which way our body leans — and we’re going to remind them that we are here to hold the door open for lost people and that you cannot do that if you are only looking in a mirror.”
United Methodist Church members around the globe are divided by the church’s newly strengthened ban on same-sex marriages and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer clergy. Some South Carolina United Methodist churches are struggling with how to respond and move forward.
The widespread tension stems from a vote Tuesday at an international United Methodist conference in St. Louis. Just more than half of the 822 worldwide delegates voted to affirm the church’s existing ban on performing same-sex marriages and on ordaining LGBT clergy and to strengthen enforcement of those tenets of discipline. And in a separate vote, they took steps toward creating a process through which individual churches could possibly leave the Methodist denomination.
Those proposals are still under official review by United Methodist leadership.
An alternative plan that was narrowly shot down at the conference would have allowed local and regional church leadership to decide their own stances on LGBT acceptance and inclusion.
The emotional debate at the conference highlighted deep divisions between progressives and conservatives in the faith and hinted at a possible splintering of the denomination. There have been denominational splits in the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches in recent decades, also stemming at least in part from differing views on LGBT issues.
There are nearly 1,000 Methodist churches with more than 222,000 church members across South Carolina. The number of both churches and members has been declining in recent years, a trend consistent among major Protestant denominations in the state. S.C. United Methodists lost more than 16,000 members in the past decade, according to statewide church statistics.
United Methodists claim nearly 7 million members in the United States and more than 12 million members worldwide. It is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the country and in South Carolina.
In a statement this week, South Carolina’s statewide United Methodist leader lamented the polarization displayed at the conference and emphasized the need for unity in the church.
Bishop L. Jonathan Holston neither affirmed nor condemned the conference’s vote against gay marriage and clergy but said that “this is not a day to declare winners and losers — this is a time for us to really seek God’s grace together.”
“At times like this, it seems there is so much that divides us, but we need to focus on those things that unite us – our mission and our ministry at home and abroad,” Holston said. “We need to remember that we are God’s people, and that we have a future with hope. We are just going to have to discern what that future is going to be – and how we move into it together.”
Joe Cal Watson, a retired Methodist minister who pastors Columbia’s Whaley Street United Methodist Church in his retirement, was more blunt than the bishop in his reaction to the LGBT vote.
“This whole thing ... is sort of disgusting,” the progressive-minded Watson said. “People are in different places in their lives, and they should have the right to choose without being set aside.”
Watson said the issue of LGBT inclusion rarely if ever gets raised in his own church because “it doesn’t touch their lives” in the small congregation. But he expressed agitation at the greater church being divided over something he doesn’t consider a church-defining issue.
“We have enough controversy, if we’d let everybody choose their way and get together on the big issues,” Watson said.
But at Two Rivers Church just outside of Charleston, the issue of inclusion is intensely personal. A number of church members and lay leaders are LGBT. And rarely does a Sunday go by that the church doesn’t talk about inclusion in one way or another, said Stanton Adams, the church’s communications director.
When it formed as a church about a year and a half ago, Two Rivers “was going to be a space where all were welcome without exception,” Adams said. “People don’t want to be told, ‘You can be queer, or you can be Christian.’ That’s the space we’ve provided for people, is to say, ‘Please, bring us everything you have, and we will love every bit of it.’ There’s no exception. There’s no change order there.”
The international conference’s vote was hurtful, he said.
But Two Rivers’ values “won’t change, and they’re not up for debate,” Adams said.
There has been widespread wondering about whether and how many churches might try to leave the denomination in the aftermath of the LGBT vote. Adams said it’s too soon to contemplate whether Two Rivers’ relationship with the denomination could change in the future.
“That’s a very formal conversation we would have to have with our leadership team,” Adams said. “This is still very fresh.”
The church’s message for now will be to “acknowledge that hurt, and we want to do whatever we can to make it right,” he said.
In the opposite corner of the state, Arant’s congregation will hear a fundamentally similar message from their pastor.
“My congregation is conservative-leaning. My goal is to remind them that nobody wins when the church is divided,” Arant said. “It distracts us from our main mission, which is to know Christ personally, but to make Christ known in the things we say and do and how we treat and talk about people. And when the church is divided over small issues, it distracts you from that.”