Methodists from around the country are gathering for a conference at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss how the church should move forward so that it’s welcoming to all — specifically LGBTQ — congregants and clergy members.
“We’ve had 47 years in the United Methodist Church of debate on the issue of human sexuality and sexual orientation,” Senior St. Andrew Pastor Mark Feldmeir said. “The hope was to try to bring people together to have a conversation about how to create a thriving, liberative methodist expression that is lacking in our denomination.”
At a special session of the church’s general conference in February, United Methodist Church leaders banned same-sex marriages and members of the LGBTQIA community from being ordained under the “Traditional Plan.” The plan goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020.
Pastors who have been found after a trial to have conducted a same-sex marriage or who publicly identify with the LGBTQ community will receive a minimum penalty of one-year suspension without pay, and will be terminated if they break the rules again.
The Rev. Jay Williams traveled to the conference from Boston and is a queer pastor at Union Church. Williams said he’s not too worried for himself when it comes to the new rules, because he comes from an accepting and historically black congregation. But he acknowledged that not everyone is in his same position.
“I’m called to this and am willing to take the risk,” Williams said. “For some of my queer clergy colleagues who are out or who have to remain faithfully hidden, Jan. 1 means slightly different things for them because they’re more targeted.”
About 100 Methodists from 24 states are attending the Advent Gathering and many backed an alternative plan called the New Expressions Worldwide, or N.E.W. Plan, including Williams, who is also an author of the plan. It would dissolve the United Methodist Church and create four denominations, including liberationists, who seek radical equality for people of color and LGBTQ folks.
The Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, a UM-Forward leader and General Conference reserve delegate, came from Connecticut to attend the gathering. Da Silva Souto said they don’t want to separate from the church, but building something new from the ground up is the only way to address systemic issues in the church so people don’t feel like they have to suppress who they really are anymore.
“We need a new structure because the structure we currently have has ossified so much and constrained the body of Christ so much that we can’t move,” da Silva Souto said. “It’s not what I want to do … Some of us are also tired of having to make ourselves smaller and invisible.”
Kendall Kridner-Protzmann is a pastor of congregational care at St. Andrew and a member of the Queer Clergy Caucus. Kridner-Protzmann thinks the denomination is dying and that people have left the church because of the vote earlier this year. She said they’re tired of having the same conversation.
“There’s younger generations coming up and saying, ‘I could easily pick a church and not have this conversation every four years,’” Kridner-Protzmann said, adding that she’s excited about what the future holds for Methodists. “Likely a fracture is going to happen.”
The United Methodist Church will vote on a plan in May 2020 during its General Conference in Minneapolis.
There are several other proposed plans in addition to the N.E.W. Plan that would radically change or divide the United Methodist Church.
When the Traditional Plan passed earlier this year, Denver clergy members were worried and uncertain about their futures. The Iliff School of Theology said 30 percent of its students are members of the LGBTQ community, and its president took a stand for LGBTQ students and clergy after the vote.. United Methodist Theological Schools said most students are young and didn’t want their church lives to be based on excluding people from the LGBTQ community.
For the Rev. Valerie L. Jackson, senior pastor at University Park Methodist Church in Denver, she thinks separating is the best way to move forward. She is queer and said the LGBTQ vote in February was, in a way, a gift.
“I think February 2019 pushed us up against the wall and compelled us to confess who we really are and put our stake in the sand,” Jackson said. “Churches who were kind of quiet about being inclusive, kind of quiet about wanting to be progressive, have come out of the closet. Talk about the concept of coming out. And that’s been a beautiful thing to watch.”