In 1939, the northern and southern wings of the Methodist Episcopal Church, long divided over the issue of slavery, merged to form an entity calling itself simply the Methodist Church. And in 1968, the Methodist Church joined forces with the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church (UMC). But that “United” moniker may soon become a thing of the past, with the New Paltz congregation at the forefront of a popular revolt.
The hot-button issue this time around is LGBTQ rights — specifically, same-sex marriage and openly gay clergy. On February 26, the UMC’s central governing body, known as the General Conference, held a special meeting in St. Louis to address the church’s lack of consensus on these issues. Technically, according to UMC doctrine as codified in a 1972 document called the Book of Discipline, homosexual behavior is seen as sinful; clergy are not allowed to perform same-sex marriages or to have active gay or lesbian relationships. In practice, however, matters have been very different in recent years: There’s even a gay bishop, and progressive congregations like the one in New Paltz have been opening their doors to LGBTQ parishioners and conducting same-sex weddings even before the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision.
The St. Louis meeting was supposed to come up with some way of reconciling warring factions within the church, which is about evenly split on the LGBTQ question. The UMC’s Council of Bishops was touting a document called the One Church Plan, which would have recognized the right of regional conferences to make determinations about ordaining openly gay clergy, as well as the right of individual congregations and clergy to decide whether or not to conduct same-sex weddings. The idea was that the conservative and progressive wings of the church could continue to operate independently on those controversial issues and still remain a single body.
But it was not to be. By a margin of 438-384, last week the General Conference delegates rejected the One Church Plan, instead adopting a document called the Traditional Plan, which not only upholds the Book of Discipline, but also mandates punishments to bishops and other clergy who fail to conform. Those who perform same-sex wedding ceremonies will now be placed on probation for a year for a first offense, and defrocked permanently for a second offense.
Unsurprisingly, the New Paltz UMC congregation isn’t having it. In an “emergency” Thursday-night gathering, parishioners voiced their anguish over the General Conference’s regressive decision and their determination to go on upholding their commitment to an open-door policy. Pastor Jennifer Berry titled the vigil “Wesley for All: Methodists for Inclusion,” pointedly leaving out the “United” bit. “I’m no longer answering the phone that way either,” she said afterwards.
About three dozen parishioners and guests showed up for the vigil, and not one expressed support for the Traditional Plan decision. “We’re all grieving what some of us cannot even imagine happening,” said one woman, who said that she had been attending national convocations for 20 years. “I’m hurt and I’m angry,” said another woman who had joined the New Paltz UMC on account of its inclusivity. “My church loves me; the leadership doesn’t. I don’t want to go back, but I still love my church family.” “Methodists saved my life, but now I feel like I’m up against that same wall,” agreed a man who said that he had converted from Catholicism.
“I’m angry at all the hurt being inflicted on people in the name of the church. This is not what it means to be Wesleyan,” said Jody Spiak, a commissioned minister who serves churches in Milton, Marlboro and Modena. Noting that he has loved ones who identify as LGBTQ, he added that the church’s decision had initially made him question his calling. “I’m going to be ordained this June. Now I don’t know if I want to be in that.” Spiak said that he was now in “a place of resolve,” and sought hope in the fact that the Traditional Plan had been “already ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council,” a body that Reverend Berry described as being “like the Supreme Court of the Methodist Church.”
Despite the failure of the One Church Plan to pass, Berry explained, the UMC is structurally “set up so that [regional] conferences are the main unit that will decide how to proceed.” She called the New York Annual Conference “pretty cohesive” and expressed strong confidence in its bishop, Tom Bickerton of White Plains, whom she called “steady, compassionate, farsighted, profoundly committed. I trust him.” Seminaries are also leading the charge against the church’s retrenchment on “culture war” issues, arguing that more restrictive policies will cause enrollment to plummet among young people, for whom LGBTQ rights are already the norm.
If these issues should come down to a formal split in the church, New Paltz UMC congregants will be already girded for battle. “If I have to apologize for being United Methodist, I would be happy to take a new name. I feel like brushing it off and leaving it on the floor,” said one during the vigil as she mimed brushing something invisible but distasteful off her arms. “Everybody in this room is not shaken by this ruling.”
Will an actual schism come to pass? “Personally, I think, yes, that there will,” Reverend Berry admitted. “But I’m not fundamentally worried about it. I would like for our church to be unfettered and liberated and able to get about the work of transformation of the world. The worst-case scenario, if we become two churches, we will be more urgently committed, and more nimble in how we serve.” She gave a determined smile. “We have a lot to do. I see the Holy Spirit in that.”