For four days, John Tate sat in a convention center in St. Louis as he and other United Methodists tried to decide if the denomination will stay unified or split over issues around gay clergy and same-sex marriage.
The best part of those days, Tate said, was the conversation he shared with his son, Eli, 18.
“We texted about the happenings each day, and I had the opportunity to share with him about my beliefs regarding God’s preferred plan for marriage,” said Tate, a member at Fairview United Methodist Church in Maryville. “In the midst of division and heartache, the end-of-the-day texts was what I looked forward to the most.
On Feb. 23-26 at The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, more than 800 elected delegates from all over the world met for a special session of General Conference, the denomination’s top policy-making body. The purpose was to help the church find a way forward amidst deep divisions over church laws stating that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
In the end, the United Methodist Church stayed together, and the General Conference adopted the “Traditional Plan” by a vote of 438 to 384. The Traditional Plan retains the church’s current ban on the performance of same-gender marriages by clergy in United Methodist churches. The vote also held up the church’s prohibition of the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” and added additional accountability for enforcing violations of those rules.
The vote was close and emotions ran high, even among United Methodist delegates from East Tennessee.
“The majority of Methodists in the U.S. support inclusion — or at least flexibility in context,” said Karen Wright, a member at Broadway United Methodist Church in Maryville. “However, we are outnumbered by the conservative U.S. delegates combined with the bloc of conservative international delegates.”
Tate and Wright were among 12 delegates representing Holston Conference, which has its central office in Alcoa. Holston Conference’s 872 churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia include the 72 congregations of Smoky Mountain District, split between Blount County and Sevier County.
In a “summary” released on Feb. 28, Holston Conference leaders acknowledged that disagreements continue: “As has been true at every General Conference, the expected passionate convictions of the delegates and observers were evident as the legislative debate occurred. While some were reassured by the outcome of our legislative work, others were greatly disappointed.”
The Holston Conference statement also pointed out that parts of the Traditional Plan passed in St. Louis were not constitutional. A judicial council will review the new rules when it meets in April.
One of the delegates expressing disappointment was Zach Plant, 21, a junior in religious studies at Maryville College. A native of Rome, Ga., Plant voted as a North Georgia Conference delegate in St. Louis earlier this week. He now attends First United Methodist Church in Maryville.
“I went in knowing it probably wouldn’t go over very well, but I thought we’d at least make some progress,” Plant said. “The future of the UMC is at stake, and we just told an entire community of people that love this church so much, they are not welcome. If the UMC wants to grow and not die off then we need to actually be united and live by our saying, ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors.’”
Tate said he was disappointed in the way that delegates on both sides debated, stalled, and “and were willing to do whatever was necessary to win the day. It is my belief that we are called as Christians to live to a higher standard as followers of Christ, even in the debate.”
Aware of the message that the General Conference’s actions may be sending, United Methodist pastors are working overtime to convince their communities that all are welcome in their churches. United Methodist Church law also states that “all persons are of sacred worth.”
“If anything, General Conference 2019 has strengthened my resolve to be a welcoming pastor, leading a welcoming congregation at a small-membership church,” said the Rev. Buzz Trexler, pastor at Green Meadow United Methodist Church in Maryville.
Green Meadow’s “welcome statement” says: “Single, married, partnered, divorced, gay, rich, poor, U.S. American, or not, you are welcome here.”
The Rev. Paul Seay, pastor at Seymour United Methodist Church in Seymour, posted the following message on the church’s Facebook page:
“Dear Friends, in spite of what you may have read or inferred from recent headlines, all people ... are welcome at Seymour United Methodist Church. Always have been and always will be. This has not changed a bit. We will carry on doing what we’ve been called to do.”
In a Feb. 27 email message to First United Methodist Church in Maryville, the Rev. Catherine Nance reminded her congregants of scripture that could help guide them in the stormy days ahead:
“Today, let us continue to live out our faith and to live by the words Jesus quoted from Leviticus, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
For more information, visit GC2019.org.