Local Methodists grapple with national changes

Split in church is inevitable based on debate about LGBTQ marriages and ordinations

Casey Van Divier and Elliott Wenzler
cvandivier@coloradocommunitymedia.com ewenzler@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/4/20

When the Jardine family joined St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch in 2018, they were grateful to have a place where their oldest son would be accepted. Not long before, the then …

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Local Methodists grapple with national changes

Split in church is inevitable based on debate about LGBTQ marriages and ordinations

Posted

When the Jardine family joined St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch in 2018, they were grateful to have a place where their oldest son would be accepted.

Not long before, the then 14-year-old had come out as gay, and the Parker family had immediately left their previous faith because they felt there wasn’t a place for them in the conservative congregation.

After a few Sundays at St. Andrew, “my son said to me, 'I’m so glad I still get to have religion in my life,’” Ryan Jardine said. “That for me was such a touching moment.”

The Jardine family is pleased with their experience at the Highlands Ranch place of worship. But that’s only because the church actively breaks the Methodist denomination’s rules by performing same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ people.

“I feel comfortable attending St. Andrew because I feel like they have the autonomy and desire to be inclusive,” Jardine said. “St. Andrew has gone out of their way with him to make sure he feels accepted and loved.”

But the United Methodist Church has been deeply divided for decades over how to include the LGBTQ community in its faith. And, in May, the issue may finally split the church as members vote on the Protocol, a proposal that would divide the church into two denominations — one for those who formally endorse same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, and another for those who do not.

Two churches acting as one

The United Methodist Church, or UMC, works a lot like modern democracies, with a system of delegates, conferences and legislation. When members want to make a change within the denomination, they must follow strict procedures. 

The church first addressed homosexuality in the 1970s, when the UMC adopted a stance against condoning same-sex marriage. Since then, there have been multiple additions to that ruling, such as completely outlawing same-sex marriages and ordinations of clergy who identify as LGBTQ. Several attempts by delegates from progressive churches to remove language stating homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity have failed.

In 2019, delegates voted to approve the Traditionalist Plan, strengthening penalties for those who violate these policies.

Although LGBTQ marriages and ordinations are prohibited, churches throughout the country and the Denver metro area break these rules every year. Under current policy, church members can file a complaint against respective leaders, which can lead to the clergyperson losing his or her ordination. 

But in the UMC’s Mountain Sky Conference, which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana, the current bishop, Karen Oliveto, is the first openly lesbian person to hold her office. She recently said she won’t process complaints related to LGBTQ involvement in church rites.

“If people have proven they have the gift for ministry,” she said, “to simply be LGBTQ is no reason to receive a complaint.”

Oliveto’s stance — she believes the Traditionalist Plan has created “a church of punishment” — reflects a simmering fracture within the church that has unfolded over five decades.

Rev. Bob Kaylor, lead pastor at Tri-Lakes UMC in Monument, which follows the more traditional belief, believes “we have long been at least two churches trying to act like one church.”

Traditionalist views, he said, are often misunderstood.

“The biggest misconception is that if you insist that Christian marriage is reserved for one man and one woman that somehow you hate your LGBTQ neighbors,” he wrote in an email to Colorado Community Media. “We aren’t trying to deny any human rights to anyone. We simply believe that the rites of the church must be consistent with Scripture and the longstanding teaching of the church.”

The Protocol, conceived by delegates from churches across the world — including bishops and reverends — calls for worship practices to remain the same in all churches. But it gives traditionalists $25 million to create a new Methodist denomination, which would allow and enforce only unions between a man and a woman and prohibit ordinations of anyone who identifies as LGBTQ. Remaining churches continue as United Methodist and will support the inclusivity of all people in rites such as marriage and ordination.

While the Protocol isn’t the only proposal under consideration, it has the strongest momentum and was derived from the most viewpoints, according to UMC documents. Delegates worked on the plan in 2019 and announced it in January. In May, 862 delegates from across the world will convene in Minneapolis to vote on the Protocol.

If the legislation passes, the Mountain Sky Conference would vote by July 2021 whether to join the inclusive or traditional branch. Individual churches, regardless of their conference’s decision, also can vote to stand with either side, with all decisions to be made by Dec. 31, 2024.

According to Oliveto, most of the nearly 380 churches in her conference identify as inclusive of all people. In a petition signed last July, about a dozen leaders from churches throughout the conference stated they reject the traditionalists’ “strict requirements.”

“The Traditionalist Plan is against everything my region has come to understand about the body of Christ,” Oliveto said. “We’re grounded in an understanding of God’s generous grace.”

In the Denver metro area’s Methodist community, congregants and clergy say they are anxious and hopeful about the coming months and potential changes. 

Some area churches have already lost members of their congregation over this issue. Others fear the split will lead to further departures.

Among religious leaders, “there is a strong push to keep as many people together as possible,” said Rev. Megan Armstrong, associate pastor at Arvada United Methodist Church.

Armstrong’s wife, Rev. Elizabeth Jackson, is also a UMC pastor. It’s important to the couple, who support an inclusive church, to try to keep congregations together, regardless of some members’ sexual orientation.

“These are the people who have sat next to you,” Armstrong said, “who have been there when your child was baptized, who have comforted you.”

An inevitable split

Despite these shared experiences, church data shows conflicting viewpoints among its members.

A 2019 UMC survey of more than 500 congregants in the U.S. showed that 44% identified as conservative or traditional in their religious beliefs, 20% identified as progressive or liberal and the rest were a mix of moderate and unsure, according to a news release from the church.

In 2015, the church completed a similar poll asking about U.S. congregants’ beliefs on same-sex marriage. It surveyed 400 people in each of three groups — pastors, leaders and members. Results showed 42% of members disagreed with the church’s ban on same-sex marriage. About 38% of pastors also disagreed.

On both sides of the debate, Methodists cite the Bible and the central mission of Christianity to support their beliefs.

“The Bible has only six passages that speak to anything related to the issue of homosexuality,” said Rev. Mark Feldmeir, lead pastor at St. Andrew UMC in Highlands Ranch. “Scripturally speaking, there’s no concept for homosexuality but we’ve interpreted some of those passages through the lens of our own biases.” 

He believes passages interpreted in the present day as being about homosexuality actually referred to other concepts and have been misconstrued because of faulty translations and a lack of historical context.

Kaylor, one of the area’s few traditionalist pastors, disagrees, saying Scripture clearly defines marriage as between a man and a woman. He also maintains the traditionalist view is inclusive.

“All of us are sinners in need of God’s grace and restoration. That is, I think, a radically inclusive position — though a very different way of defining inclusivity than my progressive colleagues might express,” Kaylor said in his email. “... the most inclusive church is the one where all the people are finding together that new way of life in Christ, no matter what their particular pattern of sin and brokenness might have been. I need my LGBTQ friends, my addicted friends, my greedy friends, my gluttonous friends … to be part of the church and they need me — because we all need Christ.”

Some local churches, like Littleton United Methodist Church, fall somewhere in the middle of the debate. The church is open to all members of the LGBTQ community but also wants to be open to people who are somewhat more traditionalist, said Rev. Richard Evans, interim senior pastor.

“Right now,” he said, “I’m very much aware that I’m an interim minister of a 'purple’ (politically mixed) church trying to be a minister to everybody (and) convey that whatever happens, we remain open and respectful of different points of view.”

Local leaders such as Feldmeir and Armstrong believe the Mountain Sky conference will likely side with the inclusive branch if the Protocol is approved. But even if the legislation isn’t adopted, local pastors say a split is inevitable.

After the Traditionalist plan passed in 2019, St. Andrew led a group of about 50 like-minded churches from throughout the country in preliminary plans to leave the denomination if forced to follow the conservative policy. Those plans were put on hold when the Protocol was announced.

Should the Protocol not be approved, other churches such as Lakewood UMC also would consider leaving the denomination, said Rev. Ben Hensley, the church’s lead pastor.  

“At Lakewood UMC, the conversation we will be having involves the question of who we are and our identity,” Hensley said. “Are we a congregation comfortable with discrimination against the LGBTQ community? I don’t believe (that we are).”

For churchgoers like the Jardines, these plans to split, no matter the process, are a necessary reassurance. Their experience has found few fully inclusive places of worship south of Denver. But for the Jardines’ son, whose family asked that his name not be used for privacy reasons, St. Andrew’s viewpoint has allowed him to find a church community, particularly among his peers, that he didn’t have before.

“It makes it a lot easier in normal life” to accept himself, the teen said.

Without the Highlands Ranch church, the family wouldn’t know where to go. 

Said Ryan Jardine: “We wouldn’t feel comfortable anywhere where LGBTQ individuals can’t be fully included in every aspect, including as pastors or reverends, (or be able to) participate in all rites.”

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