On February 26th, the United Methodist Church (UMC) voted against affirming same-sex marriages and noncelebate LGBTQ clergy at their annual General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. The Church had three plans laid out before it: the Simple Plan, which would remove all references to homosexuality from the Book of Discipline; the Traditional Plan, which would ban same-sex marriages and LGBTQ clergy; and the One Church Plan, which would leave all decisions about LGBTQ issues to individual churches.
Many, like Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner hoped the One Church Plan would prevail. “We strove to help [conservative Methodists] understand our love and to be loving to them,” she wrote in the Washington Post, “despite the pain they caused us. The votes showed we didn’t reach them, or enough of them.”
To many LGBTQ Methodists and ex-Methodists, the General Conference vote is par for the course considering the UMC’s history of division when it comes to social issues. “Part of this is because of our history,” says Methodist seminary student Rebecca. “We are a church that is the result of many years of church splits and mergers.”
Rebecca, who goes by they/them pronouns, tells Religion Dispatches that, despite having the word “United” in the title, the UMC is a diverse denomination that formed from multiple separate denominations, and has churches throughout the world. Many news outlets suggest a major reason why the UMC voted for the Traditional Plan is because the denomination has several churches in countries that are more conservative on LGBTQ issues. However, as Peter Laarman recently wrote on RD, conservative theology runs deep within American Christianity, including many Methodists.
“With so many people involved, different cultural, political, and social viewpoints are bound to come into play,” Rebecca says. “Our doctrine tends to be loose, and our beliefs tend to be ‘big tent,’ so people from a lot of different viewpoints end up in our churches.”
When it comes to LGBTQ issues, Rebecca explains the debate is nothing new. “The decisions of the 2019 General Conference for the most part did not add much discriminatory language to the Book of Discipline,” they said. “That language has been there since the 1970s, when it was added at the 1972 General Conference.” Even back then, Rebecca says, there were many individual Methodist churches that affirmed LGBTQ people, so many Methodists fought against adding anti-LGBTQ language to the Book of Discipline. There was even a magazine the liberal Methodist Student Movement put out that ran from the 1940s to the 1970s called motive (the lowercase “m” was deliberate) which called for full LGBTQ liberation.
“Our history is one of both discrimination and resistance to that discrimination,” Rebecca says. “Right now, those who stand on the side of discrimination wish to rewrite that history, by labeling their positions as ‘traditional.’ They want to erase that history of resistance. I’m not inclined to let them.”
The UMC’s history of social justice activism is what drew Rebecca to the Church. Raised a fundamentalist Baptist, Rebecca and their partner thought they were finished with church until they both attended a late-night Methodist church service on a whim. They both quickly fell in love with the Methodist tradition.
“Methodists have always emphasized the lived reality of faith,” Rebecca tells RD. “Salvation isn’t going to heaven (instead of hell) when you die, like the Baptists taught. It is dedicating your life, here and now, to building a better world….Any faith that is purely about an individual’s relationship with God is out. Faith that propels people to make the world a better place is in.”
Rebecca says they’re lucky not to face discrimination at their church, although they say it might be because people often see Rebecca as a straight cisgender woman. “The only opposition I have faced has been from a distance,” they say, which includes seeing LGBTQ people who don’t “pass” as cis and straight face discrimination.
Karlie McWilliams is one such person. A lifelong Methodist, she describes herself in a blog post as a former “ultra-conservative, white Christian male” turned “liberal white Christian trans woman.” According to her blog, McWilliams created a document to present to her church in order to let her serve there. It did not go well.
“Much of the governance of this particular church is older and leans conservative,” McWilliams tells RD. “My transition – particularly since I used to be conservative as well – took the church by surprise.” Because the leaders of her church were more conservative, fully affirming LGBTQ people would require them to rethink the way they saw how the world should be, according to McWilliams. In the end, the church and McWilliams reached a compromise where she would be allowed to serve as a liturgist for the church’s second Sunday service.
Still, McWilliams has hope for the UMC’s future. “There are studies that have shown that American youth are 70 percent pro-LGBT,” she tells RD, “and I should imagine the ratio is similar in the church. Women’s acceptance to Annual Conferences and to Ordination both took 20 to 30 years, as the older, more conservative generation passed on the mantle to the younger people, and I think it will be the same here.”
Ex-Methodist Devon Price, on the other hand, isn’t so optimistic. Price, who also goes by they/them pronouns, wrote about their experience growing up in the Methodist Church on Medium, and how they grew up hearing homophobic comments. They specifically remember how the humanity of LGBTQ people was presented as an abstract concept to be debated during Sunday school. “I internalized all of it,” Price tells RD. “It took me years to realize I could be queer and that people like me exist everywhere, and I have very few people from my community of origin who are willing to fight or do anything difficult or conflict-laden, even if they know it’s right. It’s still hard for me to fight for myself because I was never taught that anything was worth fighting for.”
When asked if the UMC would ever fully affirm LGBTQ people, Price says they neither know nor care. “It’s beyond too late for them to take a principled stance,” they say. “They have abdicated their responsibility so thoroughly that I don’t think they even deserve to exist. If you’re not a safe and actively, loudly, courageously pro-LGBTQ space in 20-fucking-19, you are not a safe place for any families or conscientious parishioners of any kind.”
Rebecca, however, believes they will see “a fully-affirming Methodist church” in their lifetime, but not necessarily a fully-affirming UMC. “We are split on this issue,” they tell RD, “almost down the middle.” Indeed, as CNN recently reported, many fear the UMC will schism into two separate Methodist denominations: one conservative and one liberal.
What will that mean for the future of the Methodist tradition? “It’s too soon to say,” Rebecca says. “But I have doubts that the UMC, as is, will ever become fully affirming. The path to full affirmation will likely involve a schism of some sort. We’re just waiting to see who will leave, and what will be left in the wake of that exodus.”