‘Where Would I Go? This Is My Home’: Queer United Methodists’ Uncertain Future

Adama Brown-Hathasway, left, the Rev. Dr. Jay Williams, both from Boston, and Ric Holladay of Kentucky join in prayer during the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Mo. Photo: Sid Hastings/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“It was the betrayal with a kiss,” the Reverend Alex da Silva Souto said last Thursday. Days earlier, the United Methodist Church voted to reinforce its official ban on the ordination of openly LGBT clergy and the solemnization of same-gender weddings at a special General Conference convened to consider the matter. For da Silva Souto, who is openly queer, his church’s decision had painful ramifications. “It was the confirmation that there’s no chance that this denomination can go on with the structure that we currently have,” he said. “That the General Conference will never get to a place where the affirmation and protection of LGBTQI individuals will be a reality. The system as it’s designed will not allow for that.”

Da Silva Souto, who served as a co-convener of the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus until recently, told New York that he and others had been trying to change the church from within, a risky proposition even before the conclusion of last week’s General Conference. Queer clergy already occupied a precarious position within the UMC. Since 1972, the UMC’s Book of Discipline, which functions like a constitution, has “affirmed” sexual relations “only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.” Some regional conferences of the church, however, are more liberal, and have ordained openly LGBT clergy and permitted same-sex weddings in defiance of church law. In some cases, these acts of defiance led to church trials.

It’s not unusual for Christian denominations to oppose the ordination of LGBT clergy. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, observes similar prohibitions. Rather than allow its de facto theological diversity to persist, the UMC has brought itself more firmly in line with other conservative denominations. But the church’s pursuit of doctrinal purity may come at a high cost. By reinforcing the denomination’s traditional position, delegates may force liberal congregations, ministers, and individual members to make a hard decision: Stay in a hostile church, or leave and potentially fracture the nation’s third-largest Christian denomination. Conservatives and liberals alike told New York magazine that a split would simply formalize an ideological schism that already exists.

It didn’t have to be this way. A General Conference works quite a bit like a smaller version of Congress, and delegates considered several different pieces of legislation. The Simple Plan, which da Silva Souto helped draft, would have struck anti-LGBT language from the Book of Discipline. Most of the denomination’s bishops supported the One Church Plan, which essentially would have enshrined the church’s status quo: Local Methodist congregations would have been able to write their own policies on same-sex marriage, clergy would not have been subject to church trial for either being openly queer or for performing a same-gender wedding, and conferences whose leaders did not want to ordain LGBT ministers would not have been obligated to do so. It was, in short, a compromise bill. Delegates instead passed the Traditional Plan favored by factions like the Wesleyan Covenant Association, an alliance of theologically conservative Methodist congregations and clergy.

The WCA’s president, Keith Boyette, told New York that it wasn’t his group’s intent to force people to leave the denomination, but that departures are “a natural consequence of these kinds of decisions.” He added, too, that there had been talk of conservatives breaking away if the General Conference had passed a more liberal policy. “When I became a member of the United Methodist Church and when I became a pastor in this church, I did it with my eyes wide open,” Boyette said. “I was asked to take vows that said I had studied and understood the teachings of the church, and that I would live my life and that I would exercise my office in accordance with those teachings and discipline.”

“If I can’t do that with integrity,” he added, “I either need to work within the system to change it or I need to step aside and pursue my ministry or pursue my faith elsewhere.”

But queer clergy said they aren’t willing to cede their church, or their vocations, to traditionalists. “We talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You can’t tell me what that relationship, then, is or is not,” said Bishop Karen Oliveto, the church’s only openly gay bishop. Oliveto, who’d backed the One Church Plan, criticized traditionalists for stating, in her words, that “there are people they will not be in relationship with.” For her part, she does not intend to leave the UMC. “This is my spiritual home,” she said. “I was raised in it. I was nurtured in the love of God through it. My discipleship was deepened through it and I have served it faithfully. Where would I go? This is my home.”

The Reverend Jay Williams, who pastors Union United Methodist Church in Boston and who, like da Silva Souto, helped write the Simple Plan, said that the General Conference’s outcome is also at odds with the historical character of his congregation. “Our first pastor was a former enslaved person turned abolitionist,” he explained. “For over 200 years, our church has been a beacon in Boston of justice and abolition against oppression and discrimination.” In 2000, he added, Union became the first African-American church in the UMC to openly affirm LGBT people.

“Our position is solid,” he said. “We’re recommitting ourselves to — as the black church tradition says — love everybody and treat everybody right. But what does this mean for us as a local church in a larger denomination that has sided with injustice and discrimination? What options does that leave for us? We don’t know, but that’s the question that people are going to be looking to have answered in the coming weeks.”

Some church members may indeed leave. The Reverend M Barclay, who also supported the Simple Plan, said that while many people seem interested in waiting to see what develops in the aftermath of the General Conference, others are ready to walk. “I’ve heard of others who just absolutely cannot stand by this denomination one more day, which is certainly an understandable reaction,” they said.

The scale of that exodus may depend on how, specifically, the UMC proceeds from last week’s vote. The Traditional Plan is now under review by the denomination’s judicial council, which multiple sources described as the UMC’s analogue to the Supreme Court. It’s possible that some provisions might not survive that review process, but queer clergy say damage has already been done. Williams is fielding questions from parishioners unsure of the church’s future. Oliveto says her youth leaders have reported self-harm among the young Methodists in their care. (There is evidence that bullying and anti-LGBT discrimination contributes to rates of depression and suicidal ideation among LGBT youth.)

As they guide their flocks, openly queer clergy must navigate their own murky futures in the church. The Traditional Plan opens the door to possibly hundreds of future church trials for clergy who are either LGBT or who perform same-gender weddings. Ministers who violate the Book of Discipline risk losing their credentials. A defrocked minister doesn’t just lose her pulpit, but her livelihood, too — a grim footnote to the public humiliation of a trial.

Williams, who is openly gay, said that the act of committing to lifelong ministry “has very material consequences in terms of vocation.” “This is how I pay my bills and support my family as well as other gay clergy,” he added.

Despite the risks, Oliveto isn’t the only clergyperson who’s determined to stay in the UMC for now. “There’s so many reasons to go and so many reasons to stay,” Barclay mused. “I think for me, part of why I’m interested in staying is because this is where I have influence. In a world that’s aching with all sorts of injustice, if this is the space where I have the most opportunities to have conversations that matter and to have an impact that might matter, then walking away and trying to build up the same kind of opportunity somewhere else just doesn’t make a lot of sense for me.”

It’s an “unnerving time” for queer clergy, Williams said. “But I believe that ultimately love will prevail, and justice will prevail, because conservatives have read Scripture very narrowly and taken a very small number of passages from the Old Testament and a few from the New Testament and read them out of their original context,” he added. “The basic principle of the Bible can be boiled down to this simple statement: God is love.”

If you are experiencing thoughts of self-harm, please call the Trevor Project Lifeline at 866-488-7386.

Queer United Methodists in Turmoil Over Anti-LGBT Vote