In the wake of the United Methodist Church’s vote against allowing gay clergy and same-sex marriages, the church’s LGBTQ members search for their next step.
For J.J. Warren, the United Methodist Church is home.
Warren grew up in the United Methodist Church and developed a passion for Christianity from a young age, connecting with Jesus’ message of inclusive love and justice. Now a senior at Sarah Lawrence College, Warren is studying to become a pastor. But Warren’s ambitions have been halted — because he is gay.
Last week, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to uphold its ban on same-sex marriage and clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” as defined in the denomination’s Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline also defines homosexuality as being “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
But Warren challenges this.
“The people who vote against [LGBTQ people] clearly aren’t in relationship with us,” said Warren. “If they were in relationship with us, it wouldn’t be about one part of our identity. They would see that we’re bearing fruit and that we’re leading people in relationships with God.”
864 delegates — both laypeople and clergy — gathered in St. Louis at the UMC General Conference from Feb. 23-26. This conference was a special session held to specific address the issue of “human sexuality,” as the church defined it.
The traditional plan, which upholds the bans on LGBTQ marriages and clergy, passed by only a 4 percent margin. Multiple parts of the plan were ruled to be in contradiction with the church’s constitution, and therefore has caused controversy among church leaders.
Warren, who was nominated to be a lay reserve delegate by the Upper New York Conference of the United Methodist Church, didn’t expect to be thrust into the spotlight of this decision. But after he gave an impassioned speech in front of the Conference in support of the “Simple Plan” — a plan that would simply remove any language stating that homosexuality was in opposition to Christian teachings and would allow all same-sex marriages and ordination of LGBTQ clergy — he went viral, at least among United Methodists. His speech has been viewed over over 635 thousand times on Facebook and 84.8 thousand times on Twitter.
“I suddenly have over three thousand followers on Twitter and I’d never tweeted before,” he laughed.
In his speech, Warren shared how he has been able to minister to students on his campus that had previously felt hurt or excluded by the church.
“We desire a church that seeks the justice of God,” he said before the delegates. “As someone who as grown up in our church, as someone who is gay, and goes to the least religious college in the U.S., my evangelism on campus has grown.”
We have brought people to Jesus because they said they have not heard this message before. They didn’t know God could love them, because their churches said God didn’t.
“And so if we can be a church which brings Jesus to people who are told can’t be loved, that’s what I want our church to be. And that’s the Methodist Church that I love and I want to be a pastor in one day.” At the end of his speech, Warren received a standing ovation from much of the crowd.
This decision hits hard locally. Reverend Dr. Matthew Bates, senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond, is devastated by the decision.
“We were hoping for an outcome that would affirm our denomination’s openness to all people. I think we also realized there was a strong possibility that things would not turn out that way,” said Bates. “I’m still just trying to process everything that’s happened.”
Bates said that Centenary UMC has been a “reconciling” congregation since 2009, and was the first of its kind to officially declare this status in the Virginia Conference. A reconciling church, Bates said, is a church that advocates for full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals. Bates supported both the Simple Plan and the One Church Plan, which would leave the decision to conduct same-sex marriages and ordain gay clergy up to individual churches and conferences.
“As a congregation we are deeply disappointed by the decision made this past week at the Called General Conference in St. Louis that has created a deeper division within the United Methodist Church,” Bates and Joe Speidel, chair of Centenary’s Church Council, wrote in a press release. “We disagree with the current church policy, which states that ‘the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.’ We intend to continue to be an open church, fully inclusive and open to all God’s children across the theological and social spectrum.”
Reverend Tom Berlin, pastor at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, VA, developed and presented the “One Church Plan” to the General Conference as part of the Commission on a Way Forward. Over two-thirds of United States delegates voted for this plan, which would have allowed clergy to perform same-sex marriages and conferences to ordain qualified gay clergy, but would have also given clergy who did not want to perform same-sex marriages to abstain.
Essentially, this plan would allow individual pastors to follow their personal convictions regarding same-sex marriage, rather than making one unilateral decision that would force clergy to either perform or refuse same-sex marriages. Many supporters of this plan expressed during the General Conference that this would prevent a possible schism.
“There are many United Methodist congregations whose members feel that the Traditional Plan, which was partially enacted last week, is a violation of their personal values of love and concern for LGBTQIA+ persons who are family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors,” said Berlin.
“These United Methodists not only welcome the LGBTQIA+ community, they want to have an inclusive church. More of these churches will find ways to demonstrate that they are welcoming and supportive of all persons, despite last week’s outcome.”
While the majority of American representatives supported pro-LGBTQ plans, the United Methodist Church is a global denomination with conferences all over the world. Approximately 41 percent of the delegates were from churches outside the US, some of whom were from countries where homosexuality is illegal.
Many of these delegates, particularly those from African countries, were vocal in their support for the Traditional Plan, feeling that any plan allowing for same-sex marriages would kill their churches. However, had the One Church Plan been passed, it would have allowed pastors in these countries to abstain from performing same-sex marriages and would not have forced them to break the law.
According to Berlin, it is possible for the decision to be reversed at a future General Conference, and groups have been organizing to enact change.
“In many United Methodist Churches, laity and clergy have been galvanized in their agreement that the decision of the recent General Conference does not reflect their values or intentions,” said Berlin. “Many are considering how to be elected as delegates to the 2020 General Conference to work to reverse the recently adopted policies. Groups like Reconciling Ministry Network, Mainstream UMC and Uniting Methodists worked together for LGBTQIA+ inclusion, and will continue to do so in the future.”
Many churches have responded to the decision by putting rainbow flags in front of their church buildings and releasing statements of inclusion and dissent.
Bates said that there is some talk that members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group that advocated for the “traditional” anti-LGBTQ plan, may still leave the denomination even though their plan passed.
“I think that’s what the moderates and progressives are waiting to see,” Bates said. “But if they stay and if most of [the traditional plan] is ruled constitutional, I think there’s going to be some big realignments among moderates and progressives who don’t want to be a part of the kind of church that the traditional plan is trying to create.”
Warren said that he is working with other young delegates in the church to ensure that more young delegates are sent to General Conference in the future, and to diversify the delegation in general. Only 36 percent of the delegates were women, for example.
“That group gathered [at General Conference] does not accurately represent how we see our church,” said Warren. “The denomination is not the church. We are the church. We want our moderate allies to speak out and use that privilege that they have as mostly straight people to work with us.”
He emphasized that individual churches need to take responsibility for this issue.
“Every church sends a lay delegate [to their regional conference]. Make sure your delegate is voting progressive,” Warren said. “Make sure you have a queer person going to annual conference so they can be voted in to the 2020 delegation [to the General Conference].”
Many clergy and members of the United Methodist Church have voiced frustration that this decision is in direct opposition to Christian teachings.
“I authored Reckless Love, a soon to be released book about Jesus’ call to keep the Great Commandment to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves,” said Berlin. “I make the case that Jesus cared for people that others often avoided. Jesus’ call was to love the least, the last, and the lost, along with our families and friends.”
“As we learn to love others who are different from ourselves, we learn to love God. Until we learn to love those who are very different from us, whose differences reflect the multi-faceted, mysterious nature of our Creator, we will never learn to love God fully,” Berlin added. “In this way, learning to love our neighbor enables us to fully love God.”
Warren said that being an openly gay Christian has helped him minister on his secular campus, as he interacts with a lot of LGBTQ students who have been hurt by the church.
“Some people are apprehensive when they hear ‘he’s a Christian’,” said Warren. “We carry along those connotations of, ‘Oh, he must want to oppress us. Wait, but he’s gay.’ So my intersecting identities of being gay and religious have proven a useful tool for sharing the real gospel that God loves us.”
In the Bible study he leads on his campus, Warren says he works to address the harm that has been done by the church while still spreading the message of God’s inclusive love.
“We talk about how we can use our faith to help people rise from the margins,” said Warren. “I think it is important to be owning up to the harm, casting a vision, and being in relationship with people.”
Bates wants the local LGBTQ population to know they are still welcome at Centenary UMC, regardless of the general conference’s decision.
Centenary has been an open and accepting church for a long time,” said Bates. “And we will absolutely continue to be.
As for Warren, he isn’t letting this devastating decision stop him from following his calling. He has plans to speak at United Methodist churches across the country this summer. He is currently applying to seminaries and still plans on pursuing ordination in the United Methodist Church, even though his current bishop has said he will not ordain Warren.
“I’ve had people reach out and say ‘try the Episcopalian church’ or ‘become Presbyterian’,” said Warren. “But there is something distinct about Methodism, and it is our home.”
Warren believes there can be a place for everyone in the United Methodist Church, and urges LGBTQ individuals not to leave.
“Stay the course. This is our home. We are the church, and this is a wilderness. We can get through this wilderness, but we have to do it together.”
Top Image via JJ Warren/Facebook