Methodist pastors react to ban on same-sex marriage, gay clergy

FELTON — Bans on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy were affirmed, but barely.

So how does the United Methodist Church proceed after its recent national conference?

At least one Kent County pastor isn’t quite sure.

“I’m telling people that my crystal ball is broken and I have no idea how this is going to land,” Pastor Sally Stewart of Felton-Viola UMC said Friday.

“A lot of people well above my pay grade are discussing a lot of options. My sense is this will break some of us apart, there will be some form of splintering.”

And if that’s so, America’s second-largest Protestant denomination (7 million members in the United States, 12.6 million worldwide) may take a previously traveled path of separation to some degree.

“We’ve wrestled with this before on issues such as women’s ordination and slavery and there’s a history of splits of some sort,” Pastor Stewart said. “This is the current incarnation.”

All the local church leaders interviewed said they were speaking for themselves, not the entire congregations.

Divisiveness was evident in St. Louis during a 54-vote margin of the 852 votes cast overall defeating a proposal that would have let regional and local church bodies decide for themselves on gay-friendly policies, the Associated Press reported. The vote was roughly 51 percent to 49 percent and fostered “a likely surge in defections and acts of defiance …” according to the AP.

“It’s a secret vote and I have my suspicions on how it went but don’t know,” Pastor Stewart said, noting that four delegates (two clergy, two members) in the Peninsula-Delaware Conference represented local interests.

“If people choose to share where they land they can and there should be an awareness of it when voting in 2020.”

The Rev. Todd Shultz of Rehoboth Beach-based Epworth UMC said the vote’s outcome was “largely influenced by other parts of the world where members of the LGBT community are persecuted.”

The nearly even vote continued the momentum toward more liberals view of inclusion, said Bishop Peggy A. Johnson, the episcopal leader of the Methodist Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference.

“Four years ago the vote was far heavier to the right,” Bishop Johnson said.

‘Saddened and disappointed’

Affiliated with the UMC for 27 years, the leader of Asbury’s congregation in Smyrna Rev. Dale Brown said he was “very saddened and disappointed as to how the vote went.

“I’m supportive of full inclusion of all people for a life in the church just as Christ welcomed all people during his time on earth.”

As far as the LGBT identification, “some people see this as an issue of some biblical interpretation but I see people who are someone’s son, daughter, friend, aunt, uncle or fellow member of the church.”

Bishop Johnson supports inclusion of all and said the recent vote “has deeply hurt many people who are (LGBT), their families and friends. From my pastoral heart I feel a sense of hurt as well.”

There’s still hope, according to Bishop Johnson, that the UMC’s mission of “spreading the liturgy of Christ and being the hands and feet of Christ for those in the world who are poor and hungry, along with staying involved in social issues.

“There may be a time where some are in different communions, but maybe not.”

A UMC Judicial board will review what was decided in St. Louis and “until then we are in a holding pattern,” said the Rev. Shultz, joined by the Rev. Vicky Starnes.

There’s a significant number of LGBT among the 1,100-member Epworth membership and the Rev. Shultz said. “No matter what the committee decides we are not going to abandon them in any way or change or change what we’re doing as far as our mission of serving our community and spreading the word of Jesus Christ.

“We are going to stay the course and be there to minister to all people in the world.”

A meeting of progressive-thinking pastors “looking forward to what that progress may look like” is upcoming, the Rev. Shultz said.

God still cares

According to Bishop Johnson, “God hasn’t given up on us and I’m a big proponent of building relationships and continuing to communicate our hopes thoughts and beliefs.”

Speaking only for herself and not those 100 or so in the pews each Sunday, Pastor Stewart reasoned that “Our congregation is very inclusive.

“It’s a big topic that our church has been talking about for three years in many contexts. It’s been discussed in bible studies, leadership meetings and during preaching.”

The pastor listens to the debate from both sides.

“What I hear from the progressives are the people on the other side are not very loving,” Pastor Stewart said. “The conservatives on the other side say progressives don’t value scripture.

“The thing I know is that neither one of those is true. There are sincere Jesus loving people on both sides who are convinced that they are right.”

Rev. Brown has friends who don’t necessarily agree with his stance but said he still has love for them and respects the opinion of others.

“I still believe with all my heart and being that the best days are still ahead for the United Methodist Church,” he said.

Open-mindedness and pliable views are key, and Pastor Stewart said her own views have evolved since years ago.

“It’s my understand that all means all when we the church says all people are welcome,” Pastor Stewart said. “The church is extremely divided on this, but there’s a belief that God’s love is not divided, it’s multiplied.”

But reaching a conclusion on beliefs is complicated.

“Interpreting the bible is more complex than cherry picking here and there to confirm one’s own bias,” Pastor Stewart said.

“We all look at scripture through a different lens.”

It’s OK to debate pros and cons, Pastor Stewart said, but there must be considerations for both.

“As a pastor I disagree with people on lots of issues,” Pastor Stewart said. “If they disagree with me on this I’m fine with that too.

“What I’m uncomfortable with, though, is those who are welded to a position, not humble or willing to consider another position …

“When interpreting scripture you should hold gently but firmly to beliefs. You must be willing to adjust those beliefs if you receive more information that can lend itself to a change in mindset.”

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