New York State of Mind

Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

By Walter Fenton –

In early March, the board of ordained ministry of the New York Annual Conference announced it will not abide by United Methodism’s Book of Discipline with regard to openly gay people seeking ordination or licensing in the conference.

“Sexual orientation and gender identity are not and will not be considered in the evaluation of candidates by the Board of Ordained Ministry,” the Rev. Dr. William B. Pfohl, chairman of the board, stated on the conference website.

“It’s rather breath-taking,” responded the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News. “General Conference is just weeks away and all the issues around the LGBTQ debate will get a full vetting. The board’s action strikes me, as I’m sure it does many others, as an ill-timed assault on the church’s long held teachings. I’m afraid decisions like this are indicative of where we’re headed even if, as I think it will, GC 2016 reaffirms our standards for clergy.”

The New York board’s decision comes closely on the heels of an announcement from the board of ordained ministry in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference that it is recommending Ms. Tara “T.C.” Morrow for commissioning as a provisional deacon. Morrow is openly married to another woman.

In a United Methodist News Service article, Bishop Jane Allen Middleton, who is serving as the New York Conference interim leader, acknowledged the decision, and offered a neutral statement, “As president of the [conference], I preside over persons who will agree and others who will disagree with this decision,” she said. “These are difficult times in the life our denomination, and my intent is to provide fairness and respect for all.”

“People are angry, frustrated, disappointed, and worried that the board’s action will lead to further division and decline in the conference,” said the Rev. Roy Jacobsen, a retired clergy member who currently serves on the board of ordained ministry and as the leader of the Wesley Fellowship, a group representing evangelical and orthodox clergy and laity in the conference.

The New York Conference dealt with two high profile cases revolving around LGBTQ issues in 2013. Complaints were filed against the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, former dean of Yale Divinity School, for presiding at his son’s same-sex service, and the Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy for acknowledging she had married her female partner in 2008. Both complaints were ultimately dismissed without trials or penalties. Tweedy continues to serve a local church in the conference despite her admission.

“Orthodox clergy and churches in our Conference are increasingly marginalized by decisions made at Annual Conference,” said the Rev. John Gerlach of Trinity UM Church in Windsor, Connecticut. “I am hoping that General Conference will provide a way for an amicable separation and an exit strategy for clergy and churches. Unity is not possible when a small segment of the church body will not agree to follow the established rules in our Book of Discipline. The church I serve has lost many active members because of the actions of our Annual Conference.”

As a whole, local churches in the New York Conference have experienced alarming drops in average worship attendance over the last two reporting cycles. The conference reported a 4.4 percent drop in 2013, followed by a 6 percent decline in 2014. The conference’s boundaries include all of New York City, much of the surrounding metropolitan area, and a large portion of the state of Connecticut. On average, just 30,382 people were in worship on any given Sunday in the conference’s local churches in 2014.

In the U.S., the denomination as a whole saw a 2.6 percent decline in 2014, a rate some church leaders regard as unsustainable.

“I find it odd that church traditionalists are often accused of fomenting schism in the church,” said Renfroe, my colleague at Good News. “But to my knowledge no traditionalist pastors or groups are calling on people to flagrantly reject our covenants and live in defiance of our Discipline. The New York board of ordained ministry’s decision is just the latest in a long litany of actions that undermine the good work of others to fulfill the mission of the church. Moves like this will ultimately lead to decline and division.”

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and analyst for Good News.

Comments

  1. Congratulations and Kudos to the New York Annual Conference!!! They are a welcome breath of fresh air in the UMC. I hope that other Annual Conferences will follow suit.
    Good News, in a recent article, lamented the loss of membership. You cannot remain stuck in the mid 20th Century, maybe even the mid 19th Century and expect to retain member, much less gain members. This is especially true of gaining young members who are the life blood of any church. Young people realize that being LBGTQ is not a choice, but a matter of one’s birth, and not a “punishable offense.”
    Thank you, NY Annual Conference!

    • Dave Miller says

      It is sad that the NYAC has chosen to disregard both the Holy Scriptures and the Book of Discipline in deciding to allow gay and lesbian candidates for ordination. The Conference has chosen to depart from scriptural authority and thousand years of church teaching. How would the Conference react if congregations decide to withhold apportionments in response? Years of liberal teaching and the NYAC shrinks each and every year.

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