Removal of LGBTQ prohibition is cause of rejoicing from some

By Jim Patterson
May 1, 2024 | CHARLOTTE, N.C. (UM News)

Randall Miller sat — looking stunned — a little removed from the impromptu celebration after delegates at General Conference swept away a decades-old policy banning LGBTQ people from serving as pastors in The United Methodist Church.

He was happy, but the change came too late for him personally.

“It doesn’t affect me,” said the reserve delegate from Berkeley, California.

“I made a decision 40 years ago that I would not pursue ordination as long as this policy was in place. … I’m close to 65. But I’m just so glad for others, especially the younger folks who are deeply committed to The United Methodist Church that want to be able to serve.”

The mood was mostly jubilation in the hastily arranged celebration in a courtyard at the Charlotte Convention Center on a sunny and temperate North Carolina afternoon.

“It’s a wonderful step forward about just including folks, taking a step further to the ‘all means all’ idea that we believe in,” said the Rev. Jonathan Campbell, pastor of Lacey United Methodist Church in Forked River, New Jersey.

But some, in and outside the convention center, said there also was sadness in reflecting on people like Miller and all they have lost, all the damage done and the good works that never happened because of the discriminatory rule.

“It’s a day for happy tears,” said the Rev. Jamie Michaels, pastor of First and Summerfield United Methodist Church in New Haven, Connecticut.

“It’s really hard not to be standing next to the people who are missing,” she said. “Folks who have been pushed out of churches, folks who have lost their livelihoods.”

Michaels was thinking of a friend who abandoned the ordination process because he felt unwelcome in The United Methodist Church.

“He discerned that this was no longer his fight,” Michaels said. “God was calling him to something big and beautiful, and he didn’t want to spend his whole career fighting for his very existence.”

Her friend is in a non-Methodist “very fruitful ministry” today, she said.

“But it’s hard to have started this journey next to him and not be here with him.”

The Rev. Deb Stevens, a retired elder in the West Ohio Conference and board member of the advocacy group Reconciling Ministries Network, said she “wonders a lot about grief.”

“Grief for those we’ve lost along the way, the people who had their orders taken away, the people who were brought up on charges, the people who despaired and gave up on United Methodism, the people who were told that they were not loved and appreciated by this church,” Stevens said.

The effort to allow LGBTQ people to be pastors dates back to the inception of the ban in 1984, and not everyone was happy it was being lifted.

“I’m deeply troubled, because the church has deviated from the faith,” said the Rev. Jerry Kulah, a Liberia Conference delegate and coordinator of the traditionalist Africa Initiative, in an interview away from the courtyard celebration. “I’m going to deeply reflect and determine how long I can bear with this.”

The Rev. Chang Min Lee, pastor of Los Angeles Korean United Methodist Church and president of the Korean Association of the United Methodist Church, also expressed concerns about the vote to United Methodist News.

“For most Korean American churches that are traditional, we are concerned about today’s vote, but at the same time, we are pleased to see that the legislation approved this morning also explicitly protects the right of clergy and churches not to officiate at or host same-sex weddings.

“While we recognize that this decision will cause some confusion and difficulty for Korean American churches, we will continue to pray and work to move forward to lead the mission of The United Methodist Church in the providence of God, who is ‘greater than all’ (Ephesians 4:6).”

But for many, the prevailing mood was one of “deep, deep gratitude,” especially for all the activists who kept the faith for years, sometimes decades, said Helen Ryde, a home missioner and a Reconciling Ministries Network coordinator.

“We’re celebrating something that hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people have worked for in this moment,” Ryde said. “We got here because of the so many people who worked hard. Some of them are not here anymore.”

Many people who wanted to serve God were prevented from doing so because of the ban, said Bishop Ken Carter of the Western North Carolina Conference.

“It was harmful to people,” Carter said. “It was not helpful to the church’s mission, and the body, with an almost unprecedented consensus, removed it.

“It’s like removing something harmful from the body, that frees the body to be healthy.”

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, a Great Plains Conference delegate, mega-church pastor and author of bestselling books on various aspects of Christianity, also welcomed the church’s turn toward full inclusivity for LGBTQ persons.

“In 1972, we singled gay and lesbian people out and created exclusionary language for them, and we’ve been fighting ever since,” he said in an interview in the convention center. “For 52 years, we’ve been a conflict-driven church and today we’ve become once more a mission-driven church and a church that’s saying everyone’s welcome in our congregations.”

Hamilton added, “I’m really proud of The United Methodist Church and I’m proud to be a United Methodist today.”

When the change was acknowledged during the morning plenary, those in favor did not make an immediate big hullabaloo about it, said the Rev. Jennie Edwards-Bertrand, pastor of Hope Church in Bloomington, Illinois.

“We had decided not to celebrate openly, out of respect for all perspectives,” she said. “So people around me were silently weeping, and one of my friends was passing out consent calendar chocolate. The second we got the text to come out by the fountain, everyone just stood up and rushed out (to celebrate).”

The consent calendar is a bundle of legislation that can be quickly passed in one vote. The ban of LGBTQ pastors was removed as part of such a vote.

“We still have more work to do at this General Conference to extract all the pieces of harmful language,” said Bridget Cabrera, executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, an advocacy group social justice. “Yet today the UMC overwhelmingly stated no matter who you are and no matter who you love, God loves you and you are welcome here.

“Thanks be to God.”

Going forward, progressive United Methodists need to “continue to build relationships,” said the Rev. Laura Wittman, pastor of The Mills Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

“We have to learn and help each other live into the values that we are beginning to set for ourselves,” Wittman said. “This is a different set of values, a long-awaited, hard-earned set of values, and it’s going to take time.”

The Rev. H.N. Gibson, associate pastor of East Lake United Methodist Church, concurs with Wittman.

“There’s still work to do, because just because we change legislation doesn’t mean that we change hearts and minds,” Gibson said. “Moving toward a more inclusive church and a church that accepts and affirms all people of all gender identities and sexual identities is going to take a lot longer and a lot more work.

“But I’m committed to that long-term work.”

Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Heather Hahn, Sam Hodges and the Rev. Thomas Kim contributed to this report. PHOTO: The Rev. Dorlimar Lebrón Malavé (left), Bishop Karen Oliveto (in blue jacket) and her wife, Robin Ridenour (front, center), join in embracing delegates and visitors t the 2024 United Methodist General Conference in Charlotte, N.C., after the conference voted to remove the denomination’s ban on the ordination of clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” — a prohibition that dates to 1984. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.



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