United Methodists from Western Pennsylvania were split on the idea of their church embracing homosexuality — about as split as the vote that struck down the idea Tuesday.
During a special session of the church’s General Conference, members, by a 374-449 vote, rejected a proposal that would have allowed local churches to conduct same-sex marriages and hire openly LGBTQ clergy. Some have speculated the move could see some congregants leave the main church, which has more than 12 million members worldwide and nearly 7 million in the United States.
A preliminary vote Monday showed the Traditional Plan, which calls for keeping the LGBTQ bans contained in the church’s Book of Discipline and enforcing them more strictly, had the support of 56 percent of the more than 800 delegates in attendance at the three-day conference in St. Louis.
“This is a difficult issue, and I think it is important that it is talked about with care and respect for all people involved,” said the Rev. Dawn Lynn Check, senior pastor of Otterbein United Methodist Church in downtown Greensburg. “We (at Otterbein) are pretty terrific at hearing each other and being open to these kinds of conversations.”
The primary alternative proposal, called the One Church Plan, was rebuffed in a separate preliminary vote, getting only 47 percent support. Backed by a majority of the church’s Council of Bishops in hopes of avoiding a schism, it would leave decisions about same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ clergy up to regional bodies and would remove language from the church’s law book asserting that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Some area pastors said the decision was the right one.
“I’m thankful that the United Methodist Church will maintain an orthodox stance and that local churches will not be put in the position of having to fight this unfortunate fight themselves, which they would have been had the ‘One Church’ plan passed,” said the Rev. Andrew Spore of Grace United Methodist Church in Natrona Heights and Freeport.
Other pastors, however, say their church may have missed an important opportunity.
“The United Methodist Church has missed the opportunity for a watershed moment, where it could lead our world, nation and communities in the acts of collaboration and compromise. It has missed the opportunity to show that people of disparate ideas can worship, work, live and simply be together in our differences while making disciples for Christ,” said the Rev. Larry Homitsky of Calvary Methodist Church of Pittsburgh.
The United Methodist Church, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States, has largely avoided the divisions that have affected other mainline Protestant bodies over the ordination of openly gay clergy and the acceptance of same-sex marriage. While other Protestant denominations have embraced the two gay-friendly practices, the UMC still officially bans them, even though acts of defiance by pro-LGBTQ clergy have multiplied and talk of a possible breakup has intensified.
The strong showing for the Traditional Plan reflects the fact the UMC, unlike other mainstream Protestant churches in the United States, is a global denomination. About 43 percent of the delegates in St. Louis are from abroad, mostly from Africa, and overwhelmingly support the LGBTQ bans.
Jackie Campbell, spokeswoman for the UMC’s Western Pennsylvania Conference, said many delegates speaking against the One Church Plan are from countries in Eastern Europe and Africa.
“It was a lot of the global church, where, in some of those countries, being gay is illegal,” Campbell said.
Among the U.S. delegates speaking in favor of the Traditional Plan on Tuesday was Nancy Denardo, a lay delegate from Port Vue United Methodist Church in McKeesport. She said the Traditional Plan is more consistent with Scriptural teaching on human sexuality.
“My father was a deeply devoted Christian. He always told me, when you doubt anything, go back to God’s Word. God’s Word is faithful, and it is eternal,” she said.
Denardo quoted from Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Matthew 19 and said, “The One Church Plan does not agree with the words of our Savior and deceives young persons into believing that same-gender marriage is OK.”
In an effort to foster dialogue on the issue, Western Pennsylvania Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi formed a “Way Forward” Task Force that conducted listening sessions throughout the 23-county conference from August to December.
“The bishop, the (Western Pennsylvania) conference and the committee did an amazing job in offering opportunities for voices to be heard,” Check said. “I do think it’s beneficial.”
The task force, which surveyed more than 1,300 United Methodists in Western Pennsylvania, found 65.5 percent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the Traditional Plan.
“While much is unclear, it is clear that our conference is divided on a way forward. There is also confusion in some of the interpretations of the plans,” the task force said in its final report.
Moore-Koikoi hopes to clear up that confusion by holding debriefing sessions in all 10 districts of the Western Pennsylvania Conference.
Leaders in the LGBTQ community expressed disappointment at the church’s vote.
“I think it’s sad,” said Gary Van Horn, president of the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, an LGBTQ nonprofit advocacy organization. “I grew up in the Methodist Church. I went to Monroeville United Methodist Church, and I was confirmed and baptized. I think they had a real opportunity to show that everybody is loved, everybody can be a part of the church. But they continued the path that will be very divisive.”
Still, both sides in the church’s stance say reaching out to their communities will remain the focus of their ministries even as they try to span the divide that now appears in the church.
“I am brokenhearted, however, over the divide that exists in our part of the universal church, and I absolutely do not exalt over those on the other side of this issue,” said Spore, who supports the church’s vote. “Persons of God are hurting today, and that is no cause for celebration. I feel personally, physically drained.”
“Nevertheless, here at Calvary, we will continue to proclaim the Scriptures and be in mission and ministries for everyone. As we share daily — you are God’s beloved and you are welcome here,” Homitsky said. “At Calvary, our hearts, our minds and our doors are truly open to all.”