Two weeks after United Methodist Church delegates voted to approve a plan that continues church prohibitions on same-sex marriages and the ordination of gay people, Methodists in Crawford County are still working through the ramifications of the vote and questioning what it means for the future of the church.
“What I can say is our church does remain open to all people,” said Dennis Swineford, district superintendent for the Erie-Meadville District of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church. “We are accepting of all people and we were a diverse denomination with many different kinds of people with a lot of different opinions and views on this. That in itself doesn’t change — the General Conference decision doesn’t change that.”
More than 820 delegates — half clergy members and half lay members — attended a special session of the UMC’s General Conference held in St. Louis from Feb. 23 to 26. The meeting came two years after UMC leaders, in hopes of improving church unity, authorized a reexamination of all policies on human sexuality in its Book of Discipline, which outlines the church’s fundamental doctrines.
Delegates at the conference considered two paths forward — the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan. The former would have allowed individual churches to determine their policies on ordination and marriage of gay people and related issues. The latter affirmed the church’s long-standing prohibitions on LGBT ministers and same-sex marriages and introduced the possibility of more severe penalties for UMC clergy who perform same-sex marriages.
In the end, the One Church Plan was voted down. The Traditional Plan, receiving 53 percent of the votes, was approved. A disaffiliation plan that would provide an exit process for congregations that wish to leave the church over the church’s policies toward LGBT people was also approved.
The goal of improving church unity does not seem to have been accomplished, as local church officials recognized.
“I acknowledge that in our annual conference some will be satisfied, some affirmed, some delighted, some frustrated, some hurt, some harmed, and some deeply saddened by the work that was done,” wrote Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, leader of the church’s Western Pennsylvania Conference, in a letter to parishioners.
At the Erie-Meadville District headquarters in Saegertown, Swineford said pastors shared Moore-Koikoi’s letter with parishioners. Church discussions of LGBT-related matters is sure to continue, Swineford said, but he also stressed that at this point nothing has changed. Before the Traditional Plan can be implemented, it must undergo a constitutional review.
“We’ll have a clearer idea of the scope of any changes there might be after the review by our Judicial Council (in April),” Swineford said. Aspects of the plan that pass constitutional muster would take effect next year.
In the meantime, Methodist clergy in Crawford County are echoing Moore-Koikoi’s take on the vote.
Jeffrey Little, pastor of Saegertown United Methodist Church, said the divide on LGBT issues had created contention among members nationally. In his own congregation, he said, the focus remains on areas of agreement.
“Not everybody agrees,” he said of his parishioners’ views of the Traditional Plan, “but we’ve been focusing on our mission of making disciples.”
At Stone United Methodist Church in Meadville, Pastor Sarah Roncolato was reluctant to speak for the church as a whole or even the Stone congregation as a whole. As for herself, Roncolato is a “reconciling” Methodist — one who supports full inclusion for LGBT members — and joined approximately 2,500 other clergy members in signing a 2015 letter of support for their LGBT colleagues.
On the Sunday following the General Conference vote, Roncolato read her congregation a letter from a man who had grown up attending Stone.
Though he is now married to his husband, in the letter the man recalled coming out as gay when he was 15 at a time when doing so was almost unheard of in Crawford County high schools.
“He thanked the congregation for always showing him love and sharing with him the love of God,” Roncolato said. “The church in his life really lived up to being who the church is supposed to be.”
Noting that younger members tend to be more progressive on LGBT issues, Roncolato predicted ongoing controversy within the church as a result of the passage of the Traditional Plan.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of resistance,” she said, “and I think it comes out of informed consciences.”
Some resistance is already evident in Meadville, where Allegheny College traces its affiliation with the UMC back to the early 1800s.
In January, James Mullen, the college’s president, joined officials from more than 90 other UMC-affiliated schools in unanimously issuing a statement calling for full inclusion of LGBT members in the church. In a statement following the passage of the Traditional Plan, Mullen said he was “deeply saddened” by the vote and described the plan as contradicting Allegheny’s statement of community.
Jane Ellen Nickell, the college’s chaplain and herself a member of the UMC clergy, attended the General Conference in St. Louis, though she was not a voting delegate, and has published a book on Methodist debates regarding race, gender and sexuality.
“Emotions were high throughout the entire session,” Nickell recalled, describing a scene full of “fervent prayer and singing to remind us of what holds us together.”
Nickell predicted that several parts of the Traditional Plan will be found unconstitutional and that the debate on church policies regarding LBGT members is far from over. There’s a chance that the church could revisit the same issues voted on in February next year and there’s even a chance, she said, that the controversy could eventually produce a split in the church like the split over slavery that divided American Methodism prior to the Civil War and lasted more than a century.
“If forced to choose between two branches, most local congregations would be wrenched apart and would lose members whichever way they went,” she said. “It would break my heart to see the church divide, but as one delegate said last week, if irreconcilable differences make it impossible to have a good marriage, a good divorce may be preferable to a bad marriage or a bad divorce.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.