United Methodist vote has churches’ future in question

Congregations debate separation following gay-clergy, same-sex marriage ban.

Bellevue pastor Phil Antilla has officiated two gay weddings in his five years serving under the United Methodist Church. One of these came a week after the 2016 Pulse nightclub Orlando, Fla., shooting that took the lives of 49 people. He recalled the Oregon ceremony being packed to the brim with the LGBTQ community, in an outpouring of support. Antilla said it was the most Christian service he’s been to.

“It was true to the spirit of Christianity, a community that was about radical inclusion,” he said. “It was about bringing in those that we’ve cast aside, about a deep commitment to restorating peace, gentleness and all-inclusive, abiding and transforming love.

“You could go to churches down the road where you’re not going to hear that message on a Sunday morning.”

Weddings like these and Methodist same-sex wedding officiants could dwindle in numbers, after the majority of global church delegates decided to ban the practice. It was during the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, held on Feb. 24-26 in St. Louis, Mo., that the issue — one that was often debated during general conferences — was decided on.

The vote had been coming for years, catching up to a changing world and the U.S. legalization of same-sex marriage. In 2016, church delegates requested that some action be made by bishops, to settle the controversial topic on human sexuality. And so the Commission on a Way Forward, a committee of 32, studied the topic for two years before presenting multiple paths the church could take in handling LGBTQ clergy and gay wedding officiating.

Fifty-three percent (483) voted in favor of the Traditionalist Plan, one that tightened the language in the “Book of Discipline,” making clear the stance Methodist churches take against religious practices related to the LGBTQ community. Members from all over the world voted.

Of those that voted in favor of the plan, two-thirds came from delegates of churches outside the U.S. One-third of those who approved worship within the country.

“Self-avowed practicing homosexuals” are prohibited from ordination and pastors of the church could face stronger punishment for officiating gay weddings. They would be suspended for a year without pay for the first offense, and fired after their second. Most of the provisions will take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

“The plan basically said if the church or pastor wants to continue supporting the LGBTQ community, you’re going to have to leave,” Antilla said. The plan even outlines ways to disaffiliate.

Petition 90066, concerning disaffiliation, became effective immediately following the conference. It says that churches must have two-thirds of a congregation vote to separate from the United Methodist name and have until Dec. 31, 2023, to do so.

The Rev. Elizabeth Ingram Schindler of the Faith Church in Issaquah was a reserved delegate at the large event held at the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis. The vote happened on the football stadium’s floor. Spectators and supporters were in the stadium concourse. The concession stands were open and serving popcorn and hotdogs. More progressive delegates, like herself, had settled into section 115.

She described it as a difficult few days. And the atmosphere differed, depending on the group of people nearby. She shed tears, and was disappointed when the final vote came down. She saw a group of women holding each other, and crying in the restroom. Others were seen skipping in the hallways, pleased with the way the vote had gone.

The church she leads, founded in 1982 and not officially a reconciling congregation, has always worked to be welcoming of all parties, including conservatives. She had hoped the conference would have approved the One Church Plan, a group of legislation that would have removed the restrictive language on same-sex marriage and gay ordination from the church rule book. At the same time the plan would have allowed those who didn’t agree to follow their own traditional practice.

“I thought that would have been the best possibility for us as a denomination to stay together, when it’s become clear over the last 40 years we’re not going to agree on what the scripture says on homosexuality and how to interpret those,” Schindler said.

Eastside fallout

Next step talks are happening up and down the Eastside. At Bothell United Methodist Church on Sunday, March 10, the pews filled with curious church members from the region. Faith leaders outlined the decisions made at the special conference, and what could come to local churches.

They were urged to continue their ministry, while the approved Traditionalist Plan goes before the churches’ own version of the Supreme Court — the Judicial Council. The plan was referred due to much of it having been ruled unconstitutional and fundamentally un-Methodist before, they said. The council would make the final judgment to delete unconstitutional legislation or remove unconstitutional portions. They anticipate the ruling to be made in May.

“Some of the harshest enforcement in that plan, I think, will be thrown out,” Schindler said. “I can’t imagine letting those rules outweigh what I understand as God’s call on my life as a minister of gospel to all of the people in my congregation.”

Regional leadership has already said they wouldn’t enforce the new rules. After the vote the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops released a video response, vocalizing their plans to stand in solidarity with their LGBTQ community and their commitment of inclusion to “all of God’s children.”

Others are already mulling over potential exit strategies.

In the past, Antilla said, it was easy for church practices to be kept quiet, brushed aside and vague, hurting the marginalized. But in his conversations with the gay community in the last week, for the first time ever, he’s been able to vocalize that the church is willing to admit failures of the past, and their commitment to being part of something new.

“I think we’re already separated,” Antilla said. “I think this just kind of pulled the curtain back a little bit to see the ways we’ve already grown apart. Churches here in Bellevue and churches in Seattle and in the Northwest have already been breaking these rules for 20 years.”

Antilla has no plan to stop his offication of same-sex marriages. He came to Bellevue after serving as the lead pastor for an Ashland, Ore., congregation. During his job interview in 2017, he was asked if he was willing to officiate same-sex weddings, knowing it would break the rules. His response was, “Of course.”

If anything, he said, the decision has caused the faith leader at Bellevue First United Methodist Church, and his congregation, to come out in more support of the LGBTQ community. The church is “Open and Affirming” — open to all sexual orientations and gender identities — and has been since church members voted for the distinction in 1995.

And they’ve held a longtime partnership with the local chapter of nonprofit PFLAG, one of the largest support groups in greater Seattle area for family members of people from the LGBTQ community. The organization calls the Bellevue church space home. And had it not been for a UMC minister at the Church of the Village in New York in 1973, the organization wouldn’t exist. Their first formal meeting was held there on March 11.

Antilla said the church community is resolute in wanting to be agents of reconciliation, being part of bringing things far apart, together, healing relationships and communities and making strangers into friends.

“Especially those we have pushed to the edges of our communities, like the LGBTQ community,” he said.

His congregation is optimistic, he said. The change offers a chance for the church to definitively be a part of something new, instead of something that is oppressive and restrictive.

“This is an invitation for us to stand in solidarity with people who probably left our church years ago and say ‘You left and so are we,’” he said.

The creation of something new remains up in the air. It’s a territory not yet explored. Funding used for humanitarian efforts and for supporting social services in the area could be at stake. The decision to leave would impact more than just the congregation, Antilla said, adding that he wants to ensure the people the church has held partnerships with don’t get cast aside.

“It’s important to remember, United Methodist is a name, an organization, and that organization voted to stay traditional,” he said. “They own the name so we’ll likely have to be a part of a new expression of church, and that’s okay. I think what makes us a church isn’t that we’re United Methodist, it’s that we’re committed to these teachings of Jesus that lead us to being changemakers in our community.”

If change did come to the church, some parts would look different. Other parts would likely remain the same, Antilla said.

“We’ll still continue to meet, we’ll still sing songs and we’ll still have ridiculously daring conversations about what it would look like to change and help advocate for justice in the world,” he said.

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