Leaders of United Methodist churches in the High Country have expressed varying reactions to the General Conference’s controversial decision to affirm the church’s current bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriages.
The decision was made during a special session of the UMC General Conference in St. Louis Feb. 24-26. The General Conference is the highest legislative body in the UMC, and the only group that can decide church law and speak officially for the global denomination, according to a statement from the Council of Bishops of the UMC.
In a 438-384 vote, church delegates supported the Traditional Plan, which maintained the current language around sexuality, marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons and streamlined the process of enforcing penalties for violating the Book of Discipline, which constitutes the law and doctrine of the UMC.
The proposed One Church Plan would have granted space for traditionalists to continue to offer ministry as they have in the past; space for progressives to exercise freely a more complete ministry with LGBTQ persons; and space for all United Methodists to continue to coexist without disrupting their ministries, according to the plan’s website. But the One Church Plan was not passed out of committee to proceed to a full vote of the delegates.
The church’s Judicial Council has been asked to review the constitutionality of the approved legislation when it gathers in late April, according to the church.
“This means that we don’t yet know what will change and what will not,” the church website states in a March 4 post about the special session.
Boone UMC Senior Pastor Lory Beth Huffman said the legislation is complicated and that her congregation has mixed viewpoints regarding inclusion of LGBTQ clergy and ordaining same-sex marriages.
“We are continuing to wrestle with what is God’s will on human sexuality and interpretation of scripture, and our own understanding of inclusion,” Huffman said.
Huffman said she was told the U.S. delegates’ vote was roughly 65-70 percent in favor of the One Church Plan.
“The United Methodist Church is far more global than our other sister denominations,” Huffman said. “If it had just been the (UMC) in U.S., there was a majority to have a more inclusive plan. Because of our growth worldwide, we have Africa and Southeast Asia, which are more socially conservative. It’s a complicated dynamic.”
Arnold Houck, Sunday School superintendent of Zion UMC in Ashe County, said his church was pleased with the decision to support the Traditional Plan.
“We felt like the church is getting way too liberal, and we were going to actually lose members if it went the other way,” Houck said. “They’ve been withholding their tithes, so it’s hurting us financially.”
While Houck said his church was happy with the vote, he said members are still very cautious of future votes.
“I was surprised it was as close as it was,” Houck said. “When it’s voted on again, it’ll be the same thing. I’ve heard through other folks from the Methodist churches away from here that they lost a lot of money on account of that vote. There was a lot of damage done.”
The Rev. Preston Thomas of Elk Park UMC in Avery County said the church has to walk a thin line.
“We’ve got to love everybody,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to care about everybody, but at the same time, we have to stand on what our beliefs are.”
However, Thomas said everyone is welcome in the church.
“(We’ve got to) let them know that God and Christ loves them and cares about them, even if we may not agree with the lifestyle that they live,” Thomas said.
Betty Henson, pastor of Creston UMC in Ashe County, said she is concerned, interested and praying about the issue.
“I’m waiting to see more on how this is going to play out,” Henson said. “The Judicial Council is still working, and people all across the denomination are in prayer and finding ways to work together. As a local pastor, I can’t speak for the larger church in the way an ordained elder can. I speak for the church I serve.”
Others in the High Country feel strongly that other options, such as the One Church Plan, should have been pursued by the General Conference.
In an online statement, Luke Edwards, pastor of Boone UMC’s King Street Church campus, said he is sad because his LGBTQ friends are hurting and questioning their worth because of the actions of his denomination. He added that through his church’s values, he has lived in a beloved Christian community with straight people, those who are a part of the LGBTQ community, white people, black people, Hispanic people, those with criminal records, people struggling with mental illness, those struggling with addiction, atheists, agnostics, lifelong Christians and more.
“Our differences are always a gift, never a curse,” Edwards said in his statement. “I wish everyone could experience this kind of community. It changes you. Never again do I wish to live in a homogenous Christian community where my friends look and think just like me.”
Moving forward, Ken Carter, president of the UMC’s Council of Bishops, is looking to spiritual elders to help guide churches in the days ahead.
“Every church I have known in my life has had spiritual elders, mature spiritual leaders who care for the body, that is the people God has called together in a place,” Carter said in a pastoral letter. “I pray in this moment for mature spiritual leadership among the clergy and laity of our global church. I pray that we will move toward the pain and grief, and especially among our members in the LGBTQ community.”
Ben Carson, the lead pastor at FaithBridge UMC in Boone, is remaining steadfast in the beliefs of his church, regardless of the outcome of the vote.
“We have a saying at FaithBridge that we often recite together before Holy Communion that goes like this: ‘Love that has limits is not love. We believe in love without limits,’” Carson said in an online response. “By the recent General Conference decisions, the United Methodist Church has chosen to put limits on love.”
Carson said there is still hope, as God does some of his best work putting the pieces back together after destruction, but the pastor has made his decision on the issue.
“Our denomination has made a decision, and so have I,” Carson said in the statement. “I choose love. Without limits.”
Anna Oakes, Luke Weir, Thomas Sherrill, Carl Blankenship and Ian Taylor contributed reporting to this story.