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Methodists seek unity after church's vote to keep ban on LGBTQ clergy, same-sex marriage

The leader of the area’s nearly 170,000 United Methodists urged followers to remain united, and hopeful, in the wake of the denomination’s vote to keep its long-standing bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage — a decision that threatens to split the worldwide church.

Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church told lay and clerical faithful Saturday at the conference’s Fulton headquarters that even though the church’s decision to keep the prohibitions in effect has been “traumatic” for many members, the denomination has survived near-schisms before — and has always done so by remembering that God’s love “applies to everyone across differences.”


“I am the bishop of, for, with and to all of you,” Easterling reassured a rapt audience of nearly 100 people. “That has not changed. I love you all. I will not apologize for that, and I will not be pulled away from that.”

The three-hour meeting included prayers for unity, a selection of Methodist hymns and words from several pastors. It was livestreamed throughout the Baltimore-Washington Conference, a region that encompasses Maryland, the District of Columbia and portions of West Virginia.


Easterling scheduled the meeting at what she called a “crucial moment” in the history of the church, a branch of Protestantism with about 12.6 million members, including about 7 million in the United States.

Unlike other Protestant denominations in the U.S., such as the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church has never eased its restrictions on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, has stated since 1972 that all individuals are “of sacred worth,” but the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

It also lists being a “self-avowed, practicing” gay clergy member, as well as officiating at same-sex unions, as chargeable offenses under church law.

In recent decades, however, many individual United Methodist churches — and even some conferences — have in effect chosen to view the rules as optional, a direction to which the more conservative conferences, principally in the American South and in Africa, have strenuously objected.

The denomination holds its international general conference every four years, but the issues so roiled the most recent such meeting — in 2016 in Portland, Oregon — that the church decided to schedule a rare off-year general conference last month.

More than 800 delegates gathered last Sunday in St. Louis for the much-anticipated four-day meeting.

They were tasked with choosing between two proposals — a so-called Traditional Plan that would reaffirm the current rules and strengthen their enforcement, and a “One Church” plan that would leave the questions at hand up to individual churches and conferences.


After three days of heated debate, 438 delegates — 53 percent — voted for the Traditional Plan, 384 for the One Church plan.

The results fell largely along geographical lines. Unlike some other Protestant churches in the United States, the United Methodist Church is a global denomination, with more than 4 million members in other countries.

In most of those nations — particularly those in Africa — United Methodists take a rigidly conservative Christian view of homosexuality, and most of those representatives voted for the Traditional Plan, leaving many of their more progressive American counterparts frustrated, angry and in Easterling’s words, “wounded.”

“We Africans are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to the church's sexual ethics," the Rev. Jerry Kulah, a dean at a Methodist theology school in Liberia, said in a speech last weekend. "We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal church elite in the U.S."

The results of the voting are not yet binding. The church’s nine-member judicial committee will rule at a meeting in April whether the Traditional Plan is constitutional under church law.

If the committee finds it constitutional, it becomes worldwide church doctrine, and it will be up to individual churches and conferences to decide how to proceed under the stricter guidelines.


It was not hard to find United Methodists at Saturday’s meeting who found the voting results hurtful.

Megan Blizzard, a lesbian member of Westminster United Methodist Church, read aloud a letter signed by more than 15,000 young Methodists, arguing that “if we are truly a body, we need each other — we need to stop the hate,” she read.

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“We [simply] want to live into our primary identities as God’s children,” she remarked later.

Blizzard added that as compelling as Saturday’s presentation was, she wished there had been more LGBTQ speakers.

Her friend Joey Heath-Mason agreed.

A United Methodist chaplain at American University in Washington, Heath-Mason, who is openly gay, said he stands to lose his position should the judicial committee vote to uphold the Traditional Plan.


“People try to equate the pain of being gay in the church with other forms of discrimination, but I don’t agree with that,” he said. “This can cost people their livelihoods.”

Easterling told the audience it was important for church leaders to reach out to LGBTQ members and clergy in the coming days and weeks to mitigate the hurt that many have felt, and she urged all members to take time to “grieve” before making any decisions about whether to leave the denomination, as many across the country have vowed to do.

“All of us have been through a traumatic experience,” she said.