Matt Driscoll

United Methodists’ anti-LGBTQ vote leaves local church leaders facing an uncertain future

Pastor reacts to United Methodist tightening of rules barring same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy

Pastor Cathy Law of the United Church in University Place says this is a "painful, devastating time," but continues to work and support the church she loves.
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Pastor Cathy Law of the United Church in University Place says this is a "painful, devastating time," but continues to work and support the church she loves.

The decision was close and divisive. The pain and anger it wrought were deep and piercing.

On Tuesday, Feb. 26, the United Methodist Church — a global entity with more than 12 million members — voted to uphold the institutions’ longstanding ban on same-sex marriage and “self-avowed practicing” LGBTQ clergy.

In fact, the vote sought to double down and strengthen the bigoted and backward restrictions.

The questions now for United Methodists Churches throughout the Pacific Northwest — many of which have been in defiance of church discipline for years — are as striking as it is potentially cataclysmic for the church:

What comes next? Can the United Methodist Church survive, at least as it has been known?

They’re questions that, at this point at least, remain murky.

In other ways, it increasingly feels like the writing is on the wall for a split.

“That day, when we got the news, I literally felt like someone took my heart out of my body and threw it on the ground,” says Rev. Karen Yakota-Love, lead pastor of Mason United Methodist Church in Tacoma’s Proctor District.

Mason United Methodist, like many affiliated churches in the area, has gone against anti-gay policies set by church’s general conference for years. In 2016, the church’s Pacific Northwest Annual Conference resoundingly passed an “action of non-conformity.”

In practice this means that Mason United Methodist — and a number of other local churches — welcome LGBTQ members and, as a pastor, Yokota-Love regularly performs same-sex marriages.

She plans to continue with both practices.

Still, for Yokota-Love and many local United Methodist leaders, this week’s news still felt like a punch in the gut.

“I was weeping. I was upset. And I was thinking of all of my colleagues that are actually feeling 4,000 times worse than what I was feeling because they’re queer or they’re gay,” Yokota-Love says.

While the vote was not wholly unexpected — it’s a debate that dates back years, complicated by cultural differences within a church that spans the globe — many hoped the gathering would provide an inclusive path forward for the church.

It did not.

More than 800 voting delegates from around the world traveled to St. Louis for a special meeting of the church’s general counsel, and the outcome was reflective of a large church with two divergent factions.

First, what was known as the “One Church Plan” — which would have removed global prohibitions against same-sex weddings and LGBTQ clergy while allowing local churches to establish their own policies — failed to garner enough support, despite being supported by the denomination’s bishops.

Next, a so-called “Traditional Plan” — which reaffirmed, broadened and toughened the general counsel’s policies against same-sex weddings and LGBTQ clergy — was approved by a vote of 438-384.

Now, the church’s Judicial Council will take up the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan. The results of that inquiry are expected in late April at the judicial body’s next scheduled meeting in Evanston, Illinois.

The dynamics of what transpired are complicated, made more so by the politics and potential repercussions at play.

Across the much of the United States — particularly west of the Rockies and in the Northeast — United Methodist churches have progressed toward inclusion over the decades since the denomination was created by merger in 1968.

But throughout much of the Bible Belt, and in places like Africa, Asia and Russia, the opposite is true.

“I’m not surprised, just because I understand the complexity of how delegates are chosen and that we are a global church,” says Rev. Cathlynn Law, the pastor at United Church in University Place. “If it was just held within the U.S., the vote would probably be two-thirds (in favor of) a more progressive denomination.”

As a clergy member in a same-sex marriage, Law is particularly aware of the ramifications of this week’s decision.

“I’m one of the folks who could lose my ordination with the new, even more punitive restrictions,” she says. “My wedding was held in a United Methodist church.”

Rev. Sharon Moe is the pastor at Tacoma First United Methodist downtown and was a reserve delegate in St. Louis this week who cast a vote in favor of the “One Church Plan.” She describes her reaction to the outcome as “anger, outrage and disbelief.”

At the same time, Moe and others see the benefit of working to maintain the United Methodist’s global status. Moe notes the positive impact the church has had across the globe as a reason to hold on.

“We are a global church, and we have all worked together to proclaim the ministry of Jesus Christ all over the world for a long time. We are essentially part of one body, and now the body appears to be on the verge of fracturing,” Moe says ruefully.

Moe says this week’s vote has made her contemplate the prospect of splitting the church, but she’s not ready to give up just yet.

“I’m going to commit myself to continuing to build something,” she says. “Because I believe in who we are and what we are doing.”

Others aren’t so sure.

Rev. Nathan Hollifield has served at United Methodist churches in Tacoma for the past five years and is working to build a new spiritual community under the name Create Commons. A younger pastor, Hollifield is interested in re-imagining what traditional church looks like.

He views the current situation as a crisis point that will hopefully “be a catalyst for real change.”

“I want us to respond boldly and organize a global movement to resurrect a new, more radical expression of the church,” Hollifield says. “If there is any good news left in the church, it will not be found through continued infighting with fundamentalists who have now taken over the global body of the United Methodist Church.”

At this point, Hollifield might be something of an outlier. For the most part, United Methodist Church leaders who spoke to The News Tribune this week sought to drive home a reassuring, albeit urgent message.

Their churches aren’t going to change, they told me, and they’ll continue to be open and welcoming of LGBTQ individuals — while at the same continuing to push the global policy body for full inclusion.

For parishioners or those concerned with the fight for social justice and equality, there’s certainly some solace to be taken in that.

At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder how long a global church fracturing along clear lines of right and wrong can hold itself together.

And whether it’s worth it to try?

“I think at this point one group will have to leave,” Yokota-Love says of the exposed schism.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.