MARYVILLE, Mo. — Faith, determination and tears were the backdrop of a town hall-style meeting Wednesday night at the First United Church of Maryville.
About 50 people — approximately a quarter of the number of faithful who fill the church’s pews each Sunday — gathered to discuss their denomination’s recent decision to uphold its longstanding prohibition against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender church members serving as ordained pastors or getting married in a UMC-sanctioned wedding.
Veteran pastor Scott Moon, due to retire in June after nearly 40 years in the pulpit, led the discussion and tried to explain in detail the anticipated impact of the international faith community’s decision to put “teeth” into a policy that has long been part of the UMC Book of Discipline.
Since the mainline Protestant denomination was founded in 1968, when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged, the ban has been frequently ignored by liberal-leaning churches and pastors, who were generally allowed to follow their conscience in the absence of a formal enforcement mechanism.
That mechanism was created in no uncertain terms on the final say of the international UMC Special General Conference, which took place Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.
The impact of the so-called Traditional Plan, which conference delegates approved by a margin of 438 to 384 (53 percent in favor, 47 percent opposed), is still being sorted out. But the message was clear. Pastors who marry gay couples will face a range of disciplinary actions — up to and including being defrocked, and Methodist bishops who ordain gay clergy will find themselves in hot water as well.
In addition, congregations that petition to leave the denomination face the prospect of forfeiting their real property — that is church-owned buildings and land — via a trust clause that is part of the contract between local churches and bishop-led regional conferences.
First UMC of Maryville is part of the Missouri Conference, which embraces the entire state and includes about 800 local churches.
During a Forum interview the day after Wednesday’s Maryville First UMC gathering, Moon said he didn’t expect his congregation to break with UMC, and emphasized that the city’s second-largest Protestant community would continue to welcome — as it has in the past — all seekers and believers regardless of sexual orientation.
As the rules now stands, Moon said, LGBT people can hold any volunteer or non-ordained paid-staff position. In addition, gay people are welcome to become members of the church, including married and unmarried gay couples.
However, same-sex weddings are banned, as are pre- and post-wedding receptions and celebrations.
Moon, a confessed progressive, doesn’t care for the restrictions, but notes that the rules haven’t really changed, only the consequences.
The pastor added that in his decade of ministry here he has not officiated at a LGBT wedding, and, in the months remaining before his retirement, plans to continue abiding by the Book of Discipline.
Emphasizing that he could not speak for the local church’s 14-member board, he said that he nevertheless hoped First UMC’s governing panel would “patiently consider the action taken by the General Conference and define what action needs to be taken to live out our all-inclusive character as a congregation.”
One option, Moon said, is for the First UMC to declare itself a “Reconciling Congregation,” a status allowed under current denominational rules that permits churches to, in Moon’s words, “offer a clear witness that we are inclusive.”
If Moon, who attended the General Conference as a non-voting observer, is somewhat circumspect in his reaction to the Traditional Plan — now church law — a significant number of his flock are not.
Feelings ran high during Wednesday’s gathering in the Victorian-era First UMC sanctuary, where reactions ranged from sober observations to doubt and questioning to impassioned grief and tears.
One woman spoke out against the conservative majority’s emphasis on Old Testament prohibitions against homosexuality, saying that “a whole lot of things are prohibited in those passages that the conference chose to ignore.”
She added that “Jesus’ life and message are the guide, not the Old Testament.”
Another UMC member commented that the conference vote was “structurally” flawed, in that the narrow majority consisted of a significant number of delegates from Africa, where Methodist numbers are growing rapidly compared to the United States, in which, as is the case with other Mainline Protestant denominations, church membership has been in decline for years.
African UMC congregations exist in nations where homosexuality is often classed as a criminal offense. They also tend to adhere to a conservative, literal interpretation of biblical scripture.
In St. Louis, African delegates joined with U.S. conservatives, mostly from the South, in an alliance that overcame what would have been, had the vote been restricted to North American delegates, a clear victory for progressives.
“A majority of (American) Methodists don’t feel their feelings were reflected in the vote,” one Maryville UMC member said.
Another individual from the local the congregation said full acceptance of LGBT Methodists “will never pass as long as we’re with Africa.”
There are nearly 7 million Methodists in the United States and another 5.6 million faithful in Africa, Asia and Europe.
As the evening progressed, the mood in the sanctuary shifted from moral outrage, sadness and despair to one of determination and hope.
“We can love people,” said one woman, her face streaked with tears.
Chris Komorech, First UMC’s director of ministry then took the microphone and expanded on the same theme.
“I believe in this church right here,” Komorech said. “This church will continue to be a light in the window. You can’t legislate love, and this church will move forward because that is our desire — to commit acts of love and inclusion.”
In the post-gathering interview, Moon indicated the struggle of the majority of United Methodist Church congregations in the U.S. to fully embrace LGBT Christians is not over.
He said the church’s international Judicial Council is to meet in April and could conceivably declare the Special General Conference’s decision to be improper under UMC’s constitution. Such a decision would likely mean the LGBT debate will resurface during the church’s regular General Conference set for 2020.