‘It’s not a comfortable place to be’: Lehigh Valley Methodists uneasy about plan to divide church over gay marriage
Roiled by debate over seemingly intractable issues — same-sex marriage and gay clergy — the United Methodist Church is poised to see if a house divided can stand after all.
On Jan. 3, leaders of the denomination offered a proposal that would split the church into conservative and progressive wings — the first affirming traditional Christian understandings of sexuality, the second opening itself fully to the LGBT community.
The proposal is a compromise meant to head off the kind of rancor that has marked the LGBT debate in other denominations and led to sometimes acrimonious splits. But some Lehigh Valley Methodists are dismayed and uneasy about the idea.
“None of us like to feel uncertainty,” said Candy LaBar, senior pastor at the Wesley United Methodist Church in Bethlehem, describing the proposal as a cloud hanging over the church. “It’s not a comfortable place to be.”
The path to the proposal started last winter, when a special Methodist conference in St. Louis was called to address the issue of sexuality in the church. The majority of representatives rejected a plan that would have allowed congregations to decide individually how to handle the issue of same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay ministers.
“I think there was rather strong reaction to that decision last February that conservatives weren’t expecting,” said Peggy Johnson, bishop for the Northern District for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. “This has shown us that we can’t legislate hearts. It’s shown us that it may be time to just stop fighting and go our separate ways.”
In May, the General Conference will convene and some 800 delegates from the Methodist church around the world will vote on this proposal and many others.
“I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that agreement had been put together and [the Methodists] were making that choice,” said Kenneth Briggs, a retired Lafayette College professor who served as religion editor of the New York Times and has authored several books about religion. “Each group has now said, ‘If that’s what you believe in your heart of hearts, why try to maintain an illusion that we’re at one over these things when we’re not?”
Virtually every Christian denomination has struggled with LGBT issues, and some have splintered as a result. Beyond arguments about doctrine, churches have clashed over practical matters, including the disposition of assets.
That happened in Bethlehem in 2016, when the majority of the congregation at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem voted to leave the Presbyterian Church USA in favor of the more conservative Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO. That led to a legal dispute over which branch had a claim to church property. In 2017, a judge ruled against the breakaway faction.
“None of us like to feel uncertainty. It’s not a comfortable place to be.”WESLEY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH PASTOR CANDY LABAR
The Methodist proposal aims to avoid that kind of conflict by proposing a window of time during which a faction seeking to leave the main denomination could do so while keeping property and assets that would have otherwise been held in trust.
If the proposal is adopted, it would mark one of the most significant divisions in a major denomination since 2009, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America voted to allow noncelibate gay pastors who are in committed relationships. That decision, along with other long-simmering disputes over the authority of Scripture, prompted conservatives in the body to break away and form the North American Lutheran Church.
Such fragmentation is far from ideal, Johnson said. A church works best when “we are able to temper one another” with various perspectives on a wide range of topics.
But homosexuality has been an issue where compromise appears hopeless but ignoring the topic is equally impossible.
Johnson said conversations with groups that have separated over the issue in other Protestant sects have shown that life does go on and the loss of such a divisive and distracting issue can help refocus a congregation.
“It seems that for the most part, people are happy in their respective camps,” Johnson said. “And they’re now able to get down to their actual missions.”
Last year, just after the United Methodists voted on the so-called Traditionalist Plan, Johnson said her heart ached for the LGBTQ members of the church who were hopeful for acceptance within their parish. To have a possible new resolution to the matter a year later is exciting for many members of the church, Johnson said.
‘Shift in the conversation’
LaBar said a split over same-sex marriage and gay clergy has seemed like a possibility for a long time. Now it appears to be a foregone conclusion.
“I found myself getting emotional when I was reading [the proposal] because it did feel like something had changed,” she said. “It seems that we’re no longer questioning if we were going to split, but instead trying to figure out how it’s going to look. It’s a real shift in the conversation.”
The last time the Methodist church reached such a divide was during the 19th century, when the issue of slavery fractured the church, LaBar said. In this way, there is precedence for tackling difficult issues, but that makes it no easier.
This is especially true since slavery came with a relatively geographical divide along the Mason-Dixon Line. When it comes to human sexuality, there is no simple way to map where any given congregation falls in their beliefs.
“It’s not just a theological idea,” LaBar said, explaining why the issues around same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay ministers is so intractable. “It can involve people you know, experiences you’ve had and your understanding of the Gospel. There’s a lot of emotions tied up in this, as there should be.”
Likening the prospect of such change to the mourning that could accompany a divorce or death, LaBar said one must also remember a basic tenant of Christianity when considering the future of the church. Believers understand that death does not have the last word, she said.
“I don’t think anything that happens in Minneapolis in May is going to leave God flummoxed. Even when something seems like it’s ending, that can often mean God is just getting started. If the split happens, it will be a source of grief and pain. But we grieve in hope, always. God is always in the process of redeeming and making new.”
The Rev. Beth Goudy, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of the Lehigh Valley — an LGBT-affirming Bethlehem congregation founded in 1984 — said the gay community is always troubled and saddened by denominational turmoil over sexuality.
“It’s difficult. ‘Here we go again’ is often the response,” she said.
Goudy remains hopeful, however, that the increasing acceptance of the LGBT community will work its way through all denominations.
“I think there’s a movement in parts of Christianity to embrace inclusion and to really commit to walking down a path for inclusion,” she said. “I think that’s where it’s at for so many people. That’s not to put down or denigrate those who make other choices — for instance, not to ordain women or to hold to only certain scriptural interpretations. But I feel that’s not really the way forward. There’s a real spirit-led movement to more and more inclusion. I think that’s the future of Christianity.”
Goudy said the so-called “nones” — people with spiritual leanings but no formal religious affiliation — aren’t likely to seek a place in churches torn by the LGBT debate.
“They hear something like this — conflict, division, harm to LGBT people — and that is just a huge turnoff,” she said. “So I’m concerned about the wider anti-evangelistic nature of these debates. It makes evangelism harder.”
A schism among Catholics?
Division is possible for Methodists and other denominations because of the nature of Protestantism. It has no central authority, so a group can cleave from a main church body and still claim its denominational identity.
Catholicism, however — the nation’s largest single religious body, and the largest Christian denomination in the world — is defined by its central authority, the pope. To reject his authority is to fall into schism, so the church could never create progressive and conservative wings as the Methodists have proposed.
On homosexuality, church teaching seems intractable. The catechism says people with same-sex attraction are to be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.” But homosexual acts are considered “disordered” because they can’t result in procreation. So gay people, like anyone outside of church-sanctioned marriage, are called to chastity.
Among the faithful, however, a more expansive view has been taking hold, one that goes far beyond Pope Francis saying “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay men pursuing the priesthood. About 60% of lay Catholics in the United States approve of same-sex marriage, according to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center.
The Rev. James Martin, an American Jesuit priest with a huge social media following, recently authored “Building a Bridge,” a popular book on improving ministry to gay and transgender Catholics. In Germany, where the church is broadly progressive, one bishop suggested creating a blessing ceremony for same-sex relationships.
Briggs sees a de facto schism already developing among Catholics, likening to the slow and implacable movement of tectonic plates. That movement is driven mainly by perceptions of Pope Francis, whose freewheeling nature and sometimes ambiguous declarations about Catholic doctrine have distressed conservatives and delighted progressives. The controversy isn’t only over LGBT issues, but they are a major part.
“It’s sad to see the internecine fighting,” Briggs said, adding that the church’s top-down authority makes the voice of the laity less influential than in other faith communities.
Briggs said the churches that survive and thrive will be the ones that look beyond the way things have always been done.
“It seems to me that there is a clear tradition of theological belief that the Holy Spirit works through the whole of creation,” he said. “Churches have often forgotten that because they continue to hold to the idea that the spirit works exclusively through the apparatus of the church.”
Sarah M. Wojcik
Sarah M. Wojcik is a suburban reporter focused on the Parkland region and surrounding townships. She joined The Morning Call in 2015 after working for more than six years at the Express-Times and lehighvalleylive.com, covering beats ranging from municipal to breaking news. She holds a communications media degree from Lock Haven University.
Daniel Patrick Sheehan
Daniel Patrick Sheehan has been a newspaper reporter since 1990 and joined The Morning Call in 2004. He is a senior reporter specializing in human interest stories.