Alexandria Clergy Pushes Back

Worldwide Methodist discord felt locally.

Some Alexandria United Methodist congregations are doubling down on a tolerant stance toward gay marriage and clergy ordination, following the global denomination’s vote last month to bolster traditionalist policies.

The United Methodist Church, a Protestant Christian denomination with roots in 18th century England and America, now claims nearly 13 million adherents worldwide. Methodists have faced, and sometimes divided over, contentious questions — for example, on church governance, slavery, ordaining women. Now questions of sexuality rock the denomination, causing talk of schism.

The 2019 General Conference, a legislative body of global delegates that speaks officially for the denomination, met in late February and voted 438-384 to adopt the “Traditional Plan.” The policy “retains [preexisting] restrictions against ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual’ clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage ceremonies and requires stricter enforcement for violations of church law,” according to the denomination. “The delegates also approved an exit plan for churches that want to leave the denomination with their property.”

The Rev. Thomas James of Alexandria’s Washington Street United Methodist Church says his congregation strives that “all persons, regardless of sexual or gender identity, are welcome to engage, share, participate, and lead in the life of the church.” But Alexandria’s United Methodist congregations “have members and participants who both lament and support the passage of this plan.”

Other local pastors indicated less variety in local views.

The Rev. Tom Berlin, who led eastern Virginia’s delegation, to which Alexandria belongs, supported the alternative “One Church Plan.” So did about two-thirds of the United Methodist Church’s American bishops, he said. This plan would have delegated questions of same-sex marriage and ordination to lower conferences overseen by regional bishops, or to local churches and clergy.

Berlin says many of his congregants identifying as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning), or with family identifying that way, feel the denomination’s decision is unwelcoming.

It’s “a desire to reach more people with the love of Christ that motivates the [One Church] Plan,” he said.

The Rev. Grace Han of Alexandria’s Trinity United Methodist Church says her congregation is “open” and “inclusive,” despite any contrary “perception” about the denomination. She worries “damage control” on this issue might detract from her congregation’s other “missional” pursuits.

The Rev. Deborah Porras of Beverley Hills Community United Methodist Church says hers was Virginia’s first “reconciling” congregation.

“‘Reconciling’ means we are actively fully inclusive and affirming of all, particularly related to LGBTQIA [LGBTQ, plus intersex and asexual] persons,” she said.

The Rev. Mary Beth Blinn of Alexandria’s Fairlington United Methodist Church says 95 percent of her congregation voted in favor of its “reconciling” stance.

“The [denominational] decision surprised me,” she said. Her congregation holds a “deep commitment to full inclusion of all people” and held a service for “hope and healing” following the General Conference.

These local views diverge from those of the more conservative U.S. minority, joined especially by Africans, who don’t necessarily see tradition and inclusivity as mutually exclusive.

While United Methodist adherence has declined in the U.S. and Europe, it’s growing in Africa and Asia, according to the denomination.

“We do not support any legislation that calls for the dissolution of The United Methodist Church,” said Bishop John Yambasu for the Africa College of Bishops in September. But “we reaffirm our position as traditionalists and view marriage as union between man and woman as clearly defined in scripture.”

“We Africans are not afraid of our sisters and brothers who identify as [LGBTQ],” said the Rev. Jerry Kulah, a Liberian delegate, according to the United Methodist News Service. “We love and hope the best for them. But we know of no compelling arguments for forsaking our church’s understanding of scripture and the teachings of the church universal [Christianity broadly]. … We are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to our sexual ethics.”

For more, visit www.umc.org/what-we-believe/ask-the-umc-what-happened-at-general-conference.

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