Following decision, Methodists still ‘talking’ about LGBT issue

Shelby Ruch-Teegarden, center, of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary joins other protestors during the United Methodist Church's special session of the general conference in St. Louis, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. America's second-largest Protestant denomination faces a likely fracture as delegates at the crucial meeting move to strengthen bans on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings)
Steve Rogers
Staff Writer

A week after the denomination’s General Conference reinforced the United Methodist Church’s position against performing same-sex marriages and ordaining gay clergy, the conversations continue in local congregations, according to local ministers.

The debate over the issue has been ongoing for years in what is the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination. In preparation for last week’s conference in St. Louis, churches in Mississippi held extensive meetings and discussions on the subject as part of putting together the diocese delegation to the conference.

And while Rev. Darian Duckworth at First United Methodist Church in West Point said she can’t give a reaction from her congregation, she has been pleased with the process and involvement going in and since last week’s vote.

“We’ve had good turnout for the information sessions and the conversations,” Duckworth said Wednesday afternoon. “And I’ve had a number of one-on-one conversations that go back months and are still going on. I’ve tried to have a pastoral approach to the issue.”

The Mississippi Annual Conference is divided into 11 districts. As part of the lead-up to last week’s national conference, Rev. James Swanson Sr., the bishop over Mississippi, held a series of informational sessions across the state that went over everything from terminology to the history of the issue.

Those were followed up by a number of “conversations” in small and large groups and in churches literally around a table sometimes.

The diocese also provided a prayer church members could say during the process.

Last week, the General Conference voted 438-384 not to expand the church’s position or give individual churches more leeway in deciding the issue.

With some elements of the denomination fearing the decision may prompt a split nationally, Swanson is now returning to each district during the coming months for further discussions and follow up, Duckworth said.

While Duckworth steered clear of taking positions or analyzing her congregation’s reaction, some Methodists offered opinions. Not surprisingly, most didn’t want to speak publicly because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

“Like it or not, it’s still a hot-button, emotional issue for many people. It was emotional in our church conversations and it’s emotional now,” said a member of the First United Methodist Church in Starkville.

The reactions have been varied.

“I think the most difficult issue has been separating the marriage ceremony and the gay minister issues from the idea that everyone is welcome in the congregation. It may be a fine line on either side, but it still is a line,” the man continued.

“I think the conference made the right decision. Bu when you look at the numbers, I could see it changing in three years if there is another vote. In West Point, I think the majority agree with the decision,” stated a member of Duckworth’s church who also asked for anonymity. “This still is a conservative area.”

The denomination's Book of Discipline says all people have "sacred worth," but it opposes the "practice of homosexuality," and says it is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Last week, three proposals — the Simple Plan, the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan — were debated, sometimes in emotional speeches and personal stories.

The Simple Plan would have removed language prohibiting gay marriage and clergy from the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The One Church Plan would have allowed local churches to decided on the issue for themselves but keep the denomination together.

The Traditional Plan, the one that passed, reaffirmed the church's current stance.

The process was one followed across the country.

For instance, prior to the conference Keith Mcilwain, a pastor in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, held meetings with the members of his church, according to his comments to CNN. He described his discussions as “multi-purposed” with one of the goals being to clarify the meeting's purpose and start a dialogue. He wanted his church members to understand the church was not deciding whether gay people were allowed to come to church. That much was not up for debate, he told CNN.

He explained in a letter to his congregation that "our Church is debating how to be in ministry with LGBTQ persons -- not whether we will be in ministry with them."

When the Traditional Plan passed, Mcilwain said he was pleased with the outcome.

"I wanted to see my preferred plan pass, just like every pastor did," he said. "But I was keenly aware that no matter which plan passed, people were going to be upset, disappointed and people were going to be in pain,” he told the network.

He said he supported the Traditional Plan because it most closely aligned with the church's theology and its historic stance on homosexuality.

”They are loved and they love others. We welcome them, they welcome us and we love them," McIlwaine said of his church’s position, one that many ministers shared during the conference.
"Whether or not we will include them isn't an issue," he said. Rather, General Conference's purpose was to decide "to what extent would it be appropriate to include them."

But the debate's not over. The UMC's Judicial Council -- think of it as the church's Supreme Court -- is set to review the Traditional Plan at its meeting in Illinois next month to decide whether it's constitutional.

If the council upholds the plan, some fear the liberal elements of the church may leave.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report