Uncertainty, hurt in Michigan after Methodist LGBT vote
Rev. Elbert Dulworth of Birmingham First United Methodist Church addresses the decisions made by the general council. The Detroit News
As senior pastor of Clarkston United Methodist Church for 15 years, the Rev. Richard Dake notices how both worldly and spiritual matters affect his flock.
In the days after the United Methodist Church voted to strengthen the faith’s divisive bans on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy, his sense of disharmony only heightened.
"I've had numerous conversations with members and leaders as we try to figure out what all this means," Dake said. "I've had, walking through the hallway, people with tears who just need to talk and feel the pain that so many are feeling because of the decision."
His congregation and others in Michigan are grappling with the historic decision approved in St. Louis, a move that could mean defections and acts of defiance among Methodists across the country and in Metro Detroit, members and leaders say.
"People will leave, I have no doubt about it, because people have strong beliefs," said Brenda DuPree, who has attended the Clarkston church for more than 40 years. "If they're not comfortable where they’re at, they will find a place where they can worship in comfort."
It’s not yet clear how the passage could affect the Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes more than 130,000 members at 830 sites throughout the state.
“We’re still trying to figure out what some of the ramifications of the plan are,” said Bishop David Alan Bard, who leads Michigan Methodists. “What’s immediately clear is that a traditional stance of LGBTQ clergy inclusion and same sex marriage was again reaffirmed and many people … in the LGBTQ community experience that as very hurtful and harmful. There is a lot of disappointment.”
No progressive or traditional local churches in Michigan have indicated they plan to leave the denomination, the state conference said.
Meanwhile, Bard plans to convene hundreds of clergy members this month in Midland to review the matter. As for the possibility of a break from the United Methodist Church, he said: “It’s unclear that the Michigan conference has the path to form a new denomination."
Congregations also could have individual discussions before the conference’s annual gathering in Traverse City from May 30 through June 2, Bard said.
With the holy season of Lent starting, the bishop said, “I’m hoping people will use that as a time of deep reflection and prayer and not react too strongly or too quickly.”
Some 864 delegates, half lay, half clergy, from around the world met from Feb. 24-26 to discuss and act on a report of the Commission on a Way Forward involving human sexuality.
By a vote of 438-384, delegates approved a proposal, called the Traditional Plan, that affirms the church’s bans on same-sex marriage and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” The plan also bolsters enforcement of those bans.
A proposal that would have let regional and local church bodies decide for themselves on gay-friendly policies was defeated.
The delegates have voted to ask the Judicial Council, the highest court in the denomination, to review the constitutionality of the legislation. It is not the official church law until Jan. 1,2020.
“We continue to teach and believe that all persons are welcomed in the church, all persons are persons of sacred worth and we welcome all to receive the ministry of Jesus. Human sexuality is a topic on which people of faith have differing views,” said Bishop Ken Carter, president of the Council of Bishops, after the conference ended Tuesday. “Despite our differences, we will continue to work together to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world and share God’s love with all people.”
America’s second-largest Protestant denomination with about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the United States, technically forbids same-sex marriage and gays serving in the ministry but enforcement has been inconsistent. Clergy who support LGBT rights have been increasingly defiant, conducting same-sex marriages or coming out as gay or lesbian from the pulpit.
In some cases, the church has filed charges against clergy who violated the bans, yet the church's Judicial Council has ruled against the imposition of mandatory penalties.
Officials had been mulling several plans for the church’s future developed during 17 months of deliberations by a Methodist committee formed after conflict over LGBT policies boiled over at a General Conference in 2016.
The Traditional Plan’s success was due to an alliance of conservatives from the U.S. and overseas. About 43 percent of the delegates were from abroad, mostly from Africa, and overwhelmingly supported the LGBT bans.
An association of Methodist theological schools warned that if the Traditional Plan passed, the church “will lose an entire generation of leaders in America.”
“Devastation” was how former Methodist pastor Rebecca Wilson of Detroit described her feelings about the decision. “As someone who left because I’m gay, I’m waiting for the church I love to stop bringing more hate.”
In some Michigan houses of worship, leaders noticed reactions across the spectrum.
"We’re a congregation that is diverse in opinion: people who are quietly relieved because their theological beliefs have been affirmed, and others who are deeply saddened by the decision," said the Rev. Sherry Parker-Lewis, who leads First United Methodist Church of Brighton and attended the general conference.
Members at its two campuses prepared for the vote in town halls where "people were able to speak, even with differing theological views, with grace to one another," she said. At communion and in worship services, attendees likely will still focus on modeling kindness and compassion, the pastor added. "We’ll continue to welcome all people."
The plan's passage has prompted an emotional response from some congregations. On Sunday, Royal Oak United Methodist Church planned to host Still Beloved: a Healing Service geared toward supporting those affected.
"Though the conference delegates voted in ways that exacerbate the pain and vulnerability of our LGBTQ+ siblings, we are going to the mountaintop, where God’s justice can roll like a river, and where these hurts and pains might wash away in the ever-flowing spring of God’s love," church officials wrote in an announcement.
At Birmingham First United Methodist Church, members opened the sanctuary for a service Wednesday night that allowed "people to pray and speak their hearts and share their prayers with the pastors and have folks who are listening to them,” said the Rev. Elbert Dulworth, senior pastor. “There’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of hurt.”
Dulworth said a decision has not been made about his church, which includes an estimated 2,800 members. “There are a lot of hurting people in our church and community right now,” he said. “I spent a lot of time reaching out and letting folks know they’re loved and cared for.”
The congregation has a range of outreach ministries, including helping refugees, and recently raised money for the Ruth Ellis Center, a Detroit social services agency serving runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth.
“We have been a place that has welcomed all and sent folks out into the community, feeding the hungry and being with people who are hurting,” he said. “That’s what we’re called to be: a place that loves folks. We believe that’s what Jesus would do and that’s what we’re called to do.”
Lindsay Hinz, a Birmingham resident who has attended the church for 30 years, called the general conference decision "sad and discouraging" but hoped change would eventually emerge.
"I would hope that the church continues to be a serving, loving, welcoming place for all to gather in worship and celebration of our shared love for Jesus," she said. "And I look forward to the day when that includes allowing for same-sex marriages at our altar and openly LGBTQ pastors. Once the gut-wrenching reality of the apparently unresolvable split within our huge and global denomination has sunk in, the fight resumes. We will continue to be who we are and do what we do, and we invite all to come along with us. The question remains: who knows where our shared love may now take us."
Despite the differing views, DuPree was optimistic that members in her church and elsewhere would continue uniting for large-scale efforts and spurring each on.
"Our belief is that we are here to love all of God’s people and to do all the good we can in the time we have and all the ways we can," said DuPree, who has been active with the Michigan Conference's Board of Global Ministries. "Our mission is to connect people to God."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.