Gays and their allies struggle with decision on whether to stay and fight or leave UMC after church reaffirms anti-gay policies, ruling
Sandy Long is about as Methodist as they come.
Long’s father is a retired Methodist minister, and when she was just 6, her family served a two-year mission for the church.
Both sets of Long’s grandparents were Methodist. And her great-grandfather was a Methodist evangelist who led revivals on Sundays.
Long, a 44-year-old out lesbian, is a member of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, a "reconciling" congregation that’s 30-40 percent gay and lesbian.
But Long said she’s decided to leave the denomination in the wake of last week’s General Conference in Fort Worth.
During General Conference, the UMC lawmaking session held once every four years, delegates voted to strengthen anti-gay language in the UMC’s governing document, the Book of Discipline. They also voted not to overturn a decision by the church’s Judicial Council granting pastors the authority to deny people membership based on their sexual orientation.
Both votes went against majority reports from legislative committees at the conference, and it marked a major setback for LGBT Methodists and their supporters.
After years of fighting, Long said she’s finally given up hope that the only church she’s ever known can change.
"Leaving the Methodist church is a hard thing for me; it’s like leaving the family, leaving a family that doesn’t really want you," Long said. "I need to do this for my own spiritual health. Even though I go to a reconciling church with the most wonderful people, it is a part of the bigger church — the one that doesn’t want me."
Northhaven UMC is a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a national Methodist group that seeks full inclusion for LGBT people.
And a reconciling committee from the 600-member North Dallas congregation spent a whole year lobbying delegates to the General Conference from North Texas.
"We’re very disappointed," said Kaye Gooch, a Northaven member who chaired the committee. "There was no expectation of giant advances, but there weren’t even incremental advances."
Gooch said she’s among those who haven’t made up their minds whether to stay in the Methodist church.
Although the General Conference votes won’t change anything at Northaven, an oasis for gay and lesbian Methodists, a portion of members’ financial contributions go to the denomination.
"I think lots of people are really having to regroup and rethink," Gooch said.
Eric Folkerth, the straight pastor at Northaven, said the congregation held a healing service Sunday, May 4, two days after the General Conference ended.
Folkerth said it was the first of what likely will be many events designed to process the results of the conference and figure out what to do next.
"I think people need time to sort through where they are," Folkerth said. "It’s going to be a tough time. It’s absolutely going to be a tough time, and I think we’ll have people individually making all kinds of decisions."
Folkerth said the General Conference was not without positives: a less conservative Judicial Council was elected; actions against a transgender clergyperson were dropped; and family is now defined as "two parents" and not just a "mother and father."
Delegates also approved a strongly worded statement condemning homophobia and a constitutional amendment that, if ratified by regional conferences over the next year, would essentially overturn decision 1032, which gave pastors the authority to deny membership to openly gay people.
Above all, though, Folkerth said it became clear during this year’s General Conference that a solid majority of U.S. delegates in the church support removing a 36-year-old clause in the Book of Law stating that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."
The clause has been used as the theological justification for the church’s anti-gay policies, including bans on gay clergy and same-sex marriage.
"It’s hard to claim a victory when the scoreboard says otherwise, but we are hearing from person after person in the American church that they were with us on this and they were ready for change," Folkerth said.
The problem, Folkerth said, is the growing influence of international delegates, especially those from Africa, who are extremely conservative. During the General Conference, a committee was appointed to study the idea of restructuring the denomination to give the U.S. church more autonomy.
The committee will report back to the 2012 General Conference.
"It’s similar to what the Episcopal Church is struggling with," Folkerth said. "They have the same exact issues in terms of the struggle between a worldwide church and a culturally appropriate church in every cultural situation. … If we cannot restructure, it’s all over. We’re at a turning point, and I hope it’s not too late."
In the meantime, Folkerth said it’s likely that Northaven will participate in acts of nonviolent protest and resistance against the church’s anti-gay policies, although it’s unclear what form they will take.
Representatives from the Reconciling Ministries Network and Soulforce, a national LGBT civil rights group, staged demonstrations on each of the last two days of the General Conference, including a same-sex commitment ceremony.
Steven Webster, a longtime Methodist from Wisconsin who helped lead Soulforce’s efforts at the conference, said he believes some congregations will follow the lead of Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C., which has been skirting the Book of Discipline by recognizing same-sex unions.
Webster, who helped start UMC’s first gay group, Affirmation, in 1975, said he doesn’t plan to leave the church, although he called that a "valid" option.
"What’s not valid from the Soulforce point of view is to remain in the church and be silent," Webster said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 9, 2008.