Could LGBT debate split Methodists? Some say it’s already happening

The top court in the United Methodist Church on Tuesday will consider whether the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly lesbian Methodist bishop, violated church law barring clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
The top court in the United Methodist Church on Tuesday will consider whether the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly lesbian Methodist bishop, violated church law barring clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” Associated Press

The Revs. Kent Little and Walter Fenton have differing views about whether the United Methodist Church should ordain gay clergy or host same-sex weddings.

Yet both realize division is a very real possibility for the denomination as United Methodists wait for decisions on how LGBT people are to be included in the life of the church.

Some churches have already left the denomination rather than wait for answers that may come in 2019. Some expect that when those answers come, more churches will leave.

“To some degree, we’ve already split,” said Little, pastor of College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita. “I do believe we will split. To what extent is what the commission and the final vote will determine. I think if we leave everything as is, there will probably be churches on both ends leaving.”

Fenton agreed but said that when churches leave, it’s usually not just because of the debate about sexuality.

“It goes to a more fundamental way of how we interpret Scripture and how Christ works in our lives,” said Fenton, a Texas-based director of development for Good News, an evangelical group that advocates for traditional views of sexuality in the United Methodist Church.

In May 2016, General Conference delegates voted 428-405 to accept the recommendation of the Council of Bishops to delay a debate on homosexuality and let a commission instead study the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document.

Currently, the Book of Discipline says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It also has prohibitions against “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and performing same-sex weddings in United Methodist churches or by United Methodist ministers.

In March, Asbury United Methodist Church’s west campus in Wichita became the latest church to split from the denomination after two large Mississippi churches voted to leave the denomination in February.

Pastors at the Mississippi churches expressed frustration with the denomination’s debate over homosexuality.

Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. of the Great Plains Annual Conference said the Rev. Aaron Wallace, pastor of Asbury’s south campus in Wichita, did not explicitly mention the debate in their conversations.

Despite that, the release from the denomination about the Asbury split described “varying levels of frustration with the impasse on human sexuality and the unity of the church.”

Wallace could not be reached for comment. The Rev. Rick Just, pastor of Asbury’s main campus, which has remained in the Methodist Church, did not want to comment.

Reconciling Ministries

Waiting on a resolution from the Commission on a Way Forward is deeply personal for many in Little’s congregation.

College Hill is the only congregation in the Wichita area that is part of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an independent group that advocates for the United Methodist Church to fully include LGBT people in the life of the church with ordination and marriage.

However, Little has promised his church that he will abide by the Book of Discipline even as he hopes for a change. He said he has been asked by same-sex couples to perform their marriage ceremonies or to be married in the church and that he has had to turn them away because of his promise. One day, he says, he wants to be able to perform those ceremonies with the blessing of his denomination.

“I still want to change,” Little said. “I love my church, not only this church, but the United Methodist Church. We need to change.”

The best-case scenario, he thinks, is a compromise between more traditional and progressive sides, perhaps giving more control to local churches.

Matter of interpretation?

As someone who believes the Book of Discipline should maintain its current teachings, Fenton is on a different side of the debate.

However, he agrees that more and more people across the denomination are realizing separation is a possibility.

He said he’s not surprised when churches leave the denomination but that those decisions are about how believers interpret Scripture.

“These churches are all very welcoming to GLBTQ people attending their churches. … These folks we find invariably are typically very good-hearted people. They’re making the decision to walk away from the denomination because the church’s leaders don’t seem able or are unwilling to hold accountable the people who are unwilling to live by the church’s teachings.”

Fenton said he doesn’t want to guess what the commission will decide.

Lesbian bishop

Saenz, this region’s bishop, has hope the United Methodist Church will stay united despite its 9 million members’ differences.

“The church as a whole does so much for the lives of individuals that make it up and also for our communities,” he said. “We can do more together than we can apart.”

Already, numerous clergy and clergy candidates have come out as gay in violation of church teachings, while other clergy have performed same-sex weddings, some going through church trials.

In July 2016, the Rev. Karen Oliveto became the first openly lesbian bishop to be elected in the United Methodist Church, over the Western Jurisdiction. Oliveto is married to a deaconess in the denomination.

The top court of the United Methodist Church, its Judicial Council, is scheduled to have a hearing Tuesday in Newark, N.J., on whether Oliveto’s election and consecration as bishop is lawful under the Book of Discipline.

‘Human nature’

Not much news has come out of the Commission on a Way Forward, but its 32 members seem to be realizing that the future could look different for the United Methodist Church, according to the denomination’s news service.

“There is within the membership of the Commission a desire for some loosening of structure (or giving each other space), honoring differences, and yet finding a clearer consensus on matters of theology and doctrine,” read an April 10 news release from the commission.

As Saenz spends his first few months as bishop – he was elected in 2016 – traveling to meet United Methodist congregations in Kansas and Nebraska, he’s trying to empower lay people to carry on ministries and make a difference in their communities. People await the commission’s outcome but also know the commission’s decision won’t bring a final conclusion to discussions about sexuality in the United Methodist Church, he said.

Although there might be many conflicting opinions in the denomination, that’s “just human nature,” Saenz said.

“We’re focused on what unifies us rather than what divides us,” Saenz said. “The church has always been in dialogue with itself and with culture. That’s part of what it means to be a church in different times and eras.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess