New England Methodists are gathering for the first time since a controversial vote by the global United Methodist Church to strengthen bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriages. Many churches in the region have openly defied this rule for years, and some are asking whether it’s time to leave the United Methodist Church. They’re hoping the region’s annual meeting will provide answers.
At the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church in downtown Providence, Rev. Jack Jones leads a weekly bible study group. Part of the conversation today: whether the United Methodist Church can remain one unified body.
Church member Robert Cubie weighs in, saying, “You’re talking about trying to find some kind of political coexistence with a group that is actively--”
“Being hostile,” Jones says. “I mean, they don’t want coexistence. And that’s why I say having another newer denomination might create a clearer... Because sometimes when you stand for everything you stand for nothing.
Mathewson Street has openly welcomed LGBTQ members for decades. But a vote by the global Methodist denomination earlier this year has thrown local churches like this one into turmoil.
At a special session of the United Methodist Church General Conference in February, delegates from around the world rejected a plan that would have allowed churches to take different paths forward. Instead, international delegates tipped the scales in favor of strengthening existing bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings.
Since then, New England Methodist institutions -- including Boston University School of Theology and the region’s ordination board -- have openly pledged to ignore the new rules. Clergy from Kansas to Florida are doing the same.
That dissent is straining the fabric of the denomination.
“What is right now is not tenable,” says Reverend Rebecca Girrell, pastor of a Methodist church in New Hampshire. “Something will change or break open. Because what is right now is distracting from what otherwise would be really important, sometimes literally life-saving, dignity-saving ministry that our local churches do. And that has to stop. Something has to give.”
For queer clergy like Girrell the stakes are high. If the new rules are enforced, she and her spouse, who’s also a Methodist pastor, could lose their income, their parish housing, and their pension investments. Plus, they could be dragged through public church trials.
At the moment, that looks unlikely. If anything, more local churches are speaking up in support of LGBTQ inclusion, says East Greenwich pastor Rev. Bill Trench. “People are galvanized, wanting to make clear where they stand.” Trench says. His own church decided to allow same-sex marriages five years ago, but only started flying a rainbow flag by their sign this spring.
Trench adds, “Three different clergy-folk have talked to me in the last few weeks about their churches becoming reconciling congregations. That means that the church declares itself open to full inclusion of LGBTQ folks. And I think they’re wanting to go through that process because of what happened at General Conference.”
At a three-day regional meeting starting Thursday, New England Methodists will consider a series of proposed actions that could shape how the region responds to the new rules.
One is a statement of belief, reaffirming the region’s decision in 2016 to ignore the denomination’s bans on LGBTQ clergy and same sex-marriages. Another would withhold money from the global church, in order to, “align our resources with our mission more effectively.”
And the most significant action would set up a task force to recommend how individual churches -- or the New England conference as a whole -- might create a new church body.
“If people just sort of start leaving one-by-one, churches one-by-one, that removes the shared power of a movement to be able to say, ‘No, we’re going to go together. We’re going to do this together,’” says Rev. Girrell, who led the team behind these actions.
If churches do decide to leave the denomination, they’ll need a concrete plan for what happens to church property. Ties between the global United Methodist Church, the New England conference, and individual churches would need to be carefully disentangled. If approved, the task force would help clarify that process.
As a queer clergy person, leading a progressive church, Girrell might seem like someone who’s ready to break away from the denomination. But it’s not an easy decision.
“Me personally leaving the denomination would happen because I was kicked out, not because I was choosing because of who, not even what but who, I would be leaving behind: other clergy and laypeople that are in this journey together,” Girrell explains. “And they matter more to me than even the principle that the church should be fully inclusive.”
The proposals on the table this weekend could provide some clarity for churches weighing their next move. But the question of whether churches will decide to break away, still hangs in limbo.