CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The United Methodist Church has a motto: Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.
But some UMC congregants don’t think the denomination upholds its own values.
“It’s a vaguery and a facade,” said John Simmons, a congregant at First United Methodist Church.
Simmons said he was raised with “fundamentalist” values and didn’t come to terms with his sexuality until he was about 40. At 25, he married a woman, partially because of “southern social order,” he said. Now single at 64, he’s served as a liturgist, unofficial archivist and acolyte, and sometimes the pastors call him “unpaid staff,” he said.
He felt loved and accepted as a gay man in his UMC congregation for 14 years until February, when he said he “basically left.”
At UMC’s General Conference that month, the denomination had voted for the Traditional Plan: clergy would not marry LGBTQ couples, and regional conferences would not ordain “self-avowed practicing” LGBTQ clergy. Although that’s the view UMC has held since its formation, churches and conferences have long disregarded the rule.
UMC churches in Charlotte span different views, some fully supporting LGBTQ marriage and others maintaining that it’s sinful. Self-identifying “progressive” churches say God’s love and inclusion call them to fully accept LGBTQ marriage and clergy. Self-proclaimed “traditional” churches say including LGBTQ-identifying congregants does not mean supporting their marriage.
In the months following the February ruling, many conferences and churches have quietly or openly opposed the decision. Some Charlotte pastors married LGBTQ couples before the ruling. Rev. Valerie Rosenquist and Rev. Michelle Chappell, lead pastors of First United Methodist Church and Dilworth United Methodist Church respectively, say they’re open to doing it again.
Still, several Charlotte congregants distanced themselves from UMC churches, temporarily or permanently.
Simmons was one of them. But after he left, First United Methodist Church pastors and members reached out to ask him back. Eventually, he returned to the church, again seeing the rainbow LGBTQ posters on its walls and pride flags near its stairwell.
The Traditional Plan approved during the 2019 General Conference upheld the UMC standard of banning LGBTQ marriage and clergy. It also added consequences for disobedience, which will go in effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
After one offense, clergy would be suspended without pay for a year. On the second offense, they would lose credentials.
“This is the traditional plan with teeth. Do we want to be in the punishment business? I don’t think so,” said the Rev. James Howell, lead pastor at Myers Park United Methodist Church.
Alternatively, Good Shepherd Church lead pastor the Rev. Talbot Davis said the decision just reaffirms “the same positive message” the UMC has always held. “We’ve been in support of what UMC believes. We’re not the outlier, we’re the United Methodists.”
At a conference in June, the Western North Carolina Conference officially rejected the Traditional Plan. However, that decision does not change the consequences for marrying LGBTQ couples.
The Bible has verses about LGBTQ relationships: Jude 1:7, 1 Timothy 1:10, 1 Corinthians 6:9.... Other verses are about love and acceptance: James 4:12, John 8:7-11, Galatians 5:14....
“It’s a matter of how we interpret the Bible,” Howell said.
He said he’s read over 50 books and 100 blog posts on the topic. He talks about it with his congregation. He said most Myers Park congregants are centrist, but there are some progressives and conservatives.
“We are trying to be a big tent church. That’s hard for everybody,” Howell said.
As a delegate at the General Conference, Howell voted for a plan that would allow each church to choose whether to marry LGBTQ couples. When that vote failed, Howell wished he had “a fake wig and mustache to camouflage the embarrassment,” he said in a March article for United Methodist Insight.
Across town, the staff at Good Shepherd Church felt peaceful and clear that the Bible forbids LGBTQ marriage, Davis said. They don’t think it’s God’s design.
“Jesus affirms heterosexual marriage. God has already decided,” said Brooke Presley, their children’s ministry leader.
The church is very straightforward about their stance against LGBTQ marriage, Davis said. The decision had little impact other than a quiet buzz among the congregants.
For Dilworth United Methodist Church and First United Methodist Church, the opposite was clear. Restricting LGBTQ marriage was equivalent to denying congregants full inclusion in the church, said Chappell and Rosenquist.
Rosenquist, who is the lead pastor at First United Methodist Church, said that denying LGBTQ marriage would give a message of “lack of inclusivity and lack of tolerance.” She believes that goes against God’s message of love.
“Not only do we welcome you, but we offer you full rights and privilege,” Chappell said.
Groups like Reconciling Ministries Network and Sacred Witness NC push for progressive change within the denomination. Some progressive congregants at Myers Park UMC started a group called In God’s Image where they discuss pain they felt following the Traditional Plan ruling.
Still, church leaders anticipate a schism in the denomination. But it would be painful, Rosenquist said. Churches may lose property. It could disrupt pension plans. It could fracture congregants’ family heritage at a church or cemetery.
The UMC denomination has talked about creating separate branches: one more traditional and the other more progressive, said the Rev. Amy Coles, the Western North Carolina Conference bishop’s assistant.
Whatever the separation, Howell said he hopes it will be “amicable.”
The “kingdom is about what we share, the redemptive love of Christ from creation and forever, and being Christ’s body, not what divides us,” he said in a June article for United Methodist Insight.