There is a crisis within the United Methodist Church (UMC) related to the role of LGBTQ clergy within its ministry. Evanston is home to four UMC congregations and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, one of 13 United Methodist seminaries in the United States and the only one located in Illinois. Tensions are high; it is unclear what the next steps will be for the UMC. The RoundTable wanted to know how Evanston’s UMC congregations and seminary are dealing with this crisis and what effect it is having, if any, on their respective religious communities.
General Conference, 1972: Homosexuality “Incompatible” With Christian Teaching
It wasn’t always this way. In 1972, at the General Conference (an international gathering of UMC clergy and laity held every four years) in Portland, Oregon, a four-year committee had studied and made recommendations on the denomination’s Social Principles, including changes to the official position on homosexuality. The committee recommended this language be adopted:
“Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.”
A delegate from Indiana, Russell Kibler, asked what was meant by saying “homosexuals are to have their human and civil rights ensured.” This question led to a public debate, which resulted in a statement being added to the official record of UMC bylaws, the “Book of Discipline”: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Beth Swanick, an active member of First United Methodist Church in Evanston for 25 years and a lifelong (“baptized as a baby”) Methodist, remembers her hometown pastor in Libertyville returning from the 1972 General Conference and saying the rules over same-sex relationships “will split the Church.”
By 2015, the year before the 2016 General Conference, many clergy and lay people were still grappling with the topic of same-sex sexuality within the Church. This is the same year the United States Supreme Court established same-sex civil marriage as a constitutional right.
Lead-Up to 2016 General Conference
Moderate voices within the church asked that the 2016 General Conference consider eliminating official language that is “unnecessarily harsh and narrow.”
The Love Your Neighbor coalition, a group of 14 ethnic and special-interest Methodist groups, stated in a letter, “We must insist that peace is not going to come through ignoring the demands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians for full inclusion in the church.”
The Reconciling Ministries Network, advocating full inclusion of LGBTQ people within the United Methodist Church, threw support behind The Simple Plan, which “equally honors all of God’s children” and removes any punitive language.
Another group, the Connectional Table, a church council comprised of clergy and lay members, recommended a plan called The Third Way, which supports decriminalization of homosexuality and allows for same-sex weddings within the church and for congregants to come out publicly.
A One Church Plan was also proposed, which would allow each congregation to choose the best option for that particular community.
Alternatively, a group of African bishops advocated “the return of our denomination to biblical teachings.” Most of the UMC’s growth comes from outside the United States, and Africa is the fastest-growing segment. Many African countries are extremely conservative about sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. Consensual same-sex sexual acts are illegal in 32 African countries, including four (Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan) where it is punishable by death.
2019 Special Session General Conference Opts for Most Conservative Plan
The tensions brewing over the past 47 years culminated in two events. The first occurred in St. Louis, Mo., on Feb. 26, the last day of the 2019 Special Session International General Conference on human sexuality and the UMC clergy. There are five jurisdictional districts in the U.S. and each district sends a group of representatives to General Conferences. Every delegation in every country is comprised equally of clergy and laypeople. Individual delegates vote anonymously on resolutions via electronic ballot.
At the 2019 Special Session General Conference, there were 862 voting delegates; 36% of those were female, 64% were male and 12 delegates did not indicate a gender. These delegates passed the so-called Traditional Plan by a vote of 438 (53.28%) to 384 (46.72%). Forty delegates, 4.64% of the total number present, did not vote. Kathy Gilbert, a reporter for United Methodist News Service, said the UMC does not keep track of who or why a delegate does not cast a vote.
The Traditional Plan was one of four proposed and the most conservative one offered for consideration. The other plans, mentioned above, called for some level of inclusion – referred to within the Church as “reconciling” – of clergy who identify as LGBTQ.
2019 Judicial Council Upholds, Extends Prohibition on LGBTQ
The second event took place two months later, April 23 to 26. When the United Methodist Judicial Council (similar to the Supreme Court in the United States) met in Evanston and upheld most, but not all, of the amendments related to the Traditional Plan.
The Traditional Plan, as approved by the Judicial Council, bars LGBTQ clergy, prohibits same-sex marriage within the church, forbids bishops from “consecrating, ordaining, commissioning self-avowed practicing homosexuals” as well as recommending or approving them as candidates for the clergy, and strengthens complaint procedures and penalties as stated in the “Book of Discipline.” The proscribed punishment for clergy who ignore these edicts is a minimum one-year suspension without pay for the first offense and permanent defrocking for subsequent ones.
The Judicial Council also approved an “exit plan” for disaffiliation that will permit churches who disagree with the Traditional Plan to leave the UMC with their property providing all future pension commitments to living former clergy are honored.
A proposal to review a clerical candidate’s social media posts to ascertain whether or not that person identified as LGBTQ was deemed unconstitutional by the Judicial Council and rejected.
The plan is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, and in May 2021 in Africa, the Philippines and Europe, one year after the 2020 General Conference.
Evanston United Methodists React
Recent conversations with local United Methodist ministers and congregants about the vote reflect palpable pain, disappointment and uncertainty. Grace Imathiu, pastor of First United Methodist Church, 516 Church St., is the spiritual leader for approximately 600 families. First United was founded in 1854 by the same group of people who founded Northwestern University (1851), Garrett Biblical Institute (1853, which later became Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary) and the City of Evanston (1853). First United Methodist is open to all regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Pastor Grace Imathiu
Pastor Imathiu said she felt crushed when the final vote was taken in February, saying “It’s about people. I didn’t know how I was going to get in the pulpit the following Sunday without weeping. I felt ashamed and scared. To talk about God is to talk about diversity. One cannot legislate God.
“After much prayer, on that first Sunday after the final vote, my sermon encouraged the congregation to join Jesus on the mountain of Transfiguration. The service broke our normally formal mood and there was participation with even the children joining in. Around us were rainbow flags and ribbons showing our welcome and support of the LGBTQI community. When we celebrated communion that morning, we had arranged that at every station the servers were our LGBTQI siblings. It was a moving hour of worship filled with tears and laughter and hope as we journey with Jesus.
“We do not know clearly what the future holds, but in the meantime, we are faithfully praying, deeply listening and imagining God’s church. We ask ourselves very Methodist questions such as: What does Scripture say? What does our tradition say in interpreting scripture? What does our experience say? And what does reason say? Although we are disappointed, angry and grieving, we will not give in to our lowest instinct. We do no harm. We do good. We stay in love with God. We are a church for everyone.”
Ms. Swanick of the First United Methodist Church emphasized that she “very much favors inclusion and fully supports overturning the Traditional Plan.” She says this issue is similar to the way integration was a controversial issue during the 20th century, and that those who do not share those ideas “resist coming into the modern age.”
Ms. Swanick continued, “It’s the elephant in the room every Sunday and part of every sermon, but our clergy keeps bringing it up and saying what they believe. There is so much good that the Methodist Church does and all of that is being overlooked now. I love this Church. It’s too much a part of my life for me to leave it. Yes, I am sad and disappointed. But we are not giving up. We will keep fighting the good fight.”
Barbara Ulrich, a 30-year member of First United Methodist, was also sad and disappointed with the results of the St. Louis conference, but not completely surprised. A retired former math teacher, she framed the issue from an educational perspective. “Does one have the open mindset of a lifelong learner or that of a closed mindset?”
Ms. Ulrich sees no way forward other than an “amicable divorce” between those congregations who want to disaffiliate and those who wish to follow the Traditional Plan.
Scort Christy, pastor of Emmanuel United Methodist Church, 1401 Oak Ave., leads a congregation that is predominantly Indian. Each Sunday he leads three successive worship services, one each in Hindi, Gujarati and English. His congregants drive from all over the suburbs and Chicago to worship in their native language and be with those who share their cultural background. Pastor Christy said, “At Emmanuel, we welcome and love anyone who wants to worship with us, but we choose not to comment at this time.”
Rev. Dr. Barbara Morgan
Reverend Dr. Barbara Morgan is the Pastor of Sherman United Methodist Church, 2214 Ridge Ave., the oldest African American congregation founded on the North Shore by an African American woman, Lula B. Sherman, in 1922. In a series of email exchanges, Reverend Dr. Morgan shared her dismay over the current situation and how she is ministering to the congregation’s more than 100 families.
“I am saddened by the recent decision handed down to us by the Conference in reference to ‘The Way Forward.’ It saddens me because we see our Church dying every day due to our differences. You would think that we, as the Church, would be the last to become critical and judgmental towards one another. We, as the Church, supposedly understand what Jesus meant, upon His departure from earth, when he left us with the one commandment that totaled all the commandments combined. That was, ‘To love the Lord with all thine heart, soul and mind, and to love thy neighbor as thy self.’ If we, as the Church, would strive to keep this final commandment, then we wouldn’t have time to sit and judge and criticize one another as we’re doing at this very moment! The Gospel of Jesus Christ is simple but seems to be extremely difficult to do.”
Pastor Reuel Talapian, leader of Hemenway United Methodist Church, 933 Chicago Ave., did not respond to repeated phone calls and email attempts to speak to him.
Dr. Lallene Rector
Dr. Lallene Rector, President of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Associate Professor of Psychology of Religion and Pastoral Psychotherapy, spoke at length about what happened at the conference and what effect the decision has had within the seminary. Dr. Rector is Garrett’s first female leader and the first lay person to lead in its 166-year history.
She noted that the 2019 Conference was a rare “single issue” conference outside the typical General Conference held every four years. She said the outcome of the vote has been “devastating.” She described students who are “frightened, not sleeping, anxious” and worries that there could be a “witch hunt” when the edict goes into effect on Jan. 1. “The Traditionalists are trying to take over,” she said, but added, “It is an organizational mess. I believe we can’t keep this [the church] together, especially when it comes to finances and who owns the name, ‘United Methodist.’”
Shelby Ruch-Teegarden, a Garrett seminary student scheduled to graduate in May 2020, works as a youth minister in Palatine and attended the St. Louis conference with a contingent of Garrett students. She was not a delegate and thus did not vote. She is active in Sacred Worth at Garrett, an LGBTQ organization whose name comes from a section on inclusiveness in the 2012 “Book of Discipline”: “The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth …”
Ms. Ruch-Teegarden grew up in rural Tennessee and was not totally shocked by the conference’s support of the Traditional Plan. She grew up with people who “100% believe that homosexuality is a choice and that you can change, and if you can’t change then you should be celibate.” She says she refuses to live her life in fear, instead “choosing to live my life as God has called me to do. I know there are queer kids in every conference, and the Traditional Plan leaves them behind. I am not willing to do that.”
She feels the vote has “galvanized” plans for the upcoming 2020 Annual Conference and has prompted much rethinking in Methodist churches across the country. She knows of churches that have passed inclusivity declarations since the vote in St. Louis. Nationally there has been a push to nominate more progressive delegates to attend the 2020 Annual Conference. Some hope that this change will also spread to UMC congregations abroad.
Currently the UMC is polarized, Dr. Rector said. If there is to be a split, the Church’s name, property and finances will need to be separated. Pension funding is already off limits. One of five regional bishops in the United States, North Central Bishop Sally Dyck, has said publicly that the pension requirements for individual congregations disaffiliating are already so expensive that the option may not be possible for some who wish to leave.
Rev. Brittany Isaac
Rev. Brittany Isaac, the District Superintendent of the Chicago Northwestern District, part of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, said of the 51 churches in her district, half are reconciling and several others are leaning that way. Ironically, the efforts to regulate same-sex clergy are already too late: there are at least 265 members nationwide in an invitation-only Facebook group of Methodist LGBTQ clergy.
When asked about the “un-Christian-like” attitude of those who favor the Traditional Plan, she suggested that “when you dial all this back, it’s about how we envision God and how we interpret Scripture. If you believe in a God of fear and retribution, then you want to do the right thing and keep God pure, and will do anything to protect that. But if you believe that God is grace and we are all children of God, then how can we legislate people?”
Dr. Rector is aware of “conciliatory efforts” of many people working to “find a way to honor our differences leading to an amicable separation,” but it is too soon to tell if anything will change. Enrollment at Garrett has not been affected, and the faculty, Board of Trustees and student body’s commitment to equality and justice remains strong, she said.
Ms. Ruch-Teegarden said, “Fear equals silence. People don’t know who we are. They are invested in their own context, and not thinking about people who are actually hurting.”
(This article was originally printed in the Evanston RoundTable on July 24, 2019.)