On February 26, 2019, the future of the Methodist Church transformed, tearing a rift between two conflicting opinions. Tensions regarding LGBTQ+ rights in the Church had been widely debated for years, but on this day, the church voted on a decision that will be remembered as a major turning point for generations to come. The vote was held for a decision to reinforce the ban on gay marriage and LGBTQ+ clergy members, and won 438 to 384, shocking Methodists around the nation and locally in Clayton, Missouri.
The division in the church eventually heightened to the conference, a critical decision on how the disputed topic of LGBTQ+ rights would be approached. The conference was held in St. Louis, Missouri, and involved the voices and opinions of Methodists throughout the United States and globally around the world.
“It’s basically the legislative body of the church,” explained Sabra Engelbrecht, the Executive Director of Ministries at The Gathering, a progressive Methodist church located in Clayton, Missouri. “Similar to Congress, the House of Representatives, they will bring a bill to the floor, and they will debate that. That was what was happening at the General Conference. Picture a big auditorium with 864 delegates sitting on the floor and following Robert’s Rules of Order while taking turns talking for and against certain petitions, which could become laws.”
During the conference, two plans were discussed: the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan.
The One Church Plan advocated for more leeway, allowing the individual churches to withhold their own discretion on the restrictions or freedoms they would implement.
In contrast, the Traditional Plan would universally ban LGBTQ+ rights throughout the United Methodist Church, including same-sex marriages, LGBTQ+ clergy and other restrictions. This plan stems from the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the a printed version of the doctrine of the Methodist Church which states that homosexuality is inconsistent with the teachings of the church and has been in play for almost 40 years now.
At the conference, the majority votes were tallied in favor of the Traditional Plan, establishing this as the working convention. However, the plan is still in progress and no regulations have immediately been instituted.
“There are lots of legislative flaws with [the Traditional Plan]. We have a body that is kind of like the Supreme Court of the United Methodist Church called a judicial council. And there’s a lot of prediction that this plan is going to be marked unconstitutional. So even this plan that we just adopted, there’s really not a concrete way to even know what it’s going to look like – if all of it will be thrown out, if parts will be thrown out,” said Martin Leathers, the students’ pastor at The Gathering.
Presently, the Traditional Plan as currently ruled on has the option for all or parts of the sections to be deemed unconstitutional and/or overturned.
Regardless, the vote in affirmation of the Traditional Plan may cause an irreversible split within the church. Depending on the future results of the vote, more conservative or more progressive churches may choose to separate from the denomination.
“One of the other big things that passed was what is called a disaffiliation action plan. [This is] the process for the church to go through if they want to disaffiliate or separate from the United Methodist Church, but no one knows [what will happen] if the traditional plan is upheld. There may be a group of more progressive churches that want to disaffiliate if the traditional plan is held unconstitutional, and then there could be a group of very conservative churches that want to disaffiliate,” Leathers said. “It’s incredibly restrictive, and the consequences are incredibly severe. There’s no gray area in this plan. I think that the biggest difference this plan made was that the consequences were so black and white, and the idea would be that no one would ever want to break them because you would move towards being fired from the church and for ministry in the United Methodist Church.”
While some churches voted in favor of the Traditional Plan, others refused to allow their progressive values to be violated. An example of this is The Gathering Clayton. The Gathering Clayton is a Methodist church located on North Bemiston Avenue and is the Clayton location of The Gathering, a larger chain of Methodist churches founded in St. Louis. The Gathering was founded by Matt Miofsky 12 years ago, created from a vision of a church which holds more progressive values with the intention of promoting a more diverse and accepting environment.
“My own experience of so many churches is that they were too beholden to the past and upholding traditions that worked for previous generations,” Miofsky said. “I wanted to create a church that valued creativity and change in order to share good news with new, younger and more diverse people.”
Although the recent vote has put The Gathering’s values to the test, they firmly chose to continue to pursue the objective that Miofsky has sought out and remain loyal to their core values.
“I wouldn’t want to predict what the future of the denomination looks like, but I know The Gathering will be part of whatever that looks like. If there is something new forming, we will be leaders in that conversation, simply because we are one of the third fastest growing United Methodist Churches,” Engelbrecht said. “One of my favorite things I’ve seen at The Gathering is not only that our LGBTQ+ neighbors, members, family and friends are welcome to come and just watch or participate, but they are people who are serving and leading. I’m really excited and proud to be able to say that there is no differentiation between gay and straight in our leadership…The Gathering is not just that we say ‘You are welcome,’ but also, ‘Bring your gifts, bring your leadership and share them with the church.’”
Another unique aspect of the Gathering is their openness about their controversial views.
“Something that I feel is unique to see in religious branches is announcing your ideas that the general public may not agree on. With The Gathering, they are very public about their views on the LGBTQ+ community,” said CHS freshman Reese Quinn. “They had a booth at the Pride Parade in the summer of 2018 … It’s amazing to see the love and acceptance at the Gathering.”
Freshman Emma Baum is another member of The Gathering Clayton and has attended for almost 10 years.
“[The Gathering] has made it really, really clear that despite what the Methodist church has decided, they will still be supporting and accepting and loving of LGBTQ+ people because that is the belief of our particular church, and we don’t believe that a vote should change our beliefs,” Baum said. “While I do feel a little conflicted about being a Methodist, I don’t feel conflicted about going to the church that I go to because I know that they do not support the views that the Methodist church has recently adopted.”
“It really hurts me to see that these old fashioned ideas are still in play, and it really upsets me to know that the Methodist church is not being accepting of the LGBTQ community,” said Quinn. “We trust The Gathering’s decisions and will follow where they go.”
“I think the greater church around the US has to figure out a way to no longer turn people away but to invite people in,” said Miofsky. “We need to be known for what we are for, not simply what we are against … The General Conference was a step back for the greater United Methodist Church.”
The greater church around the US has to figure out a way to no longer turn people away but to invite people in.”
— Matt Miofsky
Miofsky believes that in the end, the new Traditional Plan will not solve the division in the church but will instead lead to different and smaller branches in the Methodist denomination with different views of the LGBTQ+ community and how they should be treated.
LGBTQ+ rights are a sensitive topic, especially in the context of religion, and with the recent divide of the Methodist church, the debate has further intensified. Among this, however, individuals have discovered their standpoint and defined their voice amidst the controversy.
“This conference has unleashed a whole host of unlikely advocates or unlikely activists. People that normally are pretty quiet on the issue or don’t really want to get involved are starting to say, ‘This was not okay and I’m going to speak up.’ I’m starting to see that more and more people that don’t normally have a lot to say about divisive issues are starting to take a stand,” said Engelbrecht.
With the vote and technicalities, Leathers and Engelbrecht also believe that the sensitivity of the topic has been overlooked.
“The tagline of the Methodist Church for the last 20 years has been open minds, open hearts, open doors, and there are a lot of people who are feeling like this door was just closed to them. And I think that is the hardest part about this process. People were talked about not as people but as issues and less than people… There needs to be understanding that this issue that we are dealing with is people and not a debate to be had, but the people to be loved. Part of this conference lost sight of people and that’s forever unfortunate,” said Leathers. “This was a vote by imperfect people that were representing an imperfect institution. It was not a statement of God about people, and no church or no person gets to decide who God loves.”
“We are not going to change our stance or our practice of welcoming LGBTQ people into all steps of ministry [even though] this will put us at odds with the larger denomination,” Miofsky said. “While we are hoping the denomination changes to allow for this, if it does not, we will reconsider our relationship with the United Methodist Church. We will continue to be a voice for advocacy and change at the greater church level.”
Miofsky and his fellow pastors plan to keep on fighting for a church that will welcome the LGBTQ+ community and promote acceptance of all people, the same goal he had when creating the church in 2006.
“I’m just so sorry for the ways that the church has hurt gay, lesbian and trans people, and I would tell any teenager or any person that you are loved, that you are not a mistake, that you are not wrong, or broken,” said Leathers. “There are places where you are welcome. You can be known for who you are.”