The United Methodist Church has been debating the topic of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ individuals for decades. In February 2019, a special session of the United Methodist General Conference, the legislative body of the UMC, passed the Traditional Plan. It retained language against “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from becoming ordained pastors and prohibits clergy members from performing same-sex weddings.
However, the Traditional Plan, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2020, adds stricter enforcement and punishment for violations of church law, according to the UMC website.
“Pastors who perform weddings and are convicted by trial will have minimum penalties of one-year unpaid suspension (1st offense) and surrender of credentials (2nd offense),” a summary from the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church states.
Rev. Mark Westmoreland, pastor at Glenn Memorial UMC, thinks the added restrictions and their punitive nature are what have upset many people.
“This took it to a different level of punitiveness that I think most good United Methodists simply felt was offensive and was hurtful and made it a much more bitter fight in a sense. It intensified the anger in this,” Westmoreland said.
“I think that’s when a lot of folks who would consider themselves middle of the road Methodists felt that, ‘Okay it’s time now to bring this to an end.’ This has gotten to be a sense of vindictiveness here and a certain punitive nature that’s absolutely necessary,” he added.
Pastors can be brought up on charges for various things, such as re-baptizing someone, yet there are no minimum penalties for other violations of church law.
“Re-baptism is equally against our orders and we can be brought up on charges for re-baptizing people,” said the Rev. Anjie Woodworth, co-pastor at Neighborhood UMC. “People actively do it and are very public about it and are not brought up on charges, and there are no minimum penalties for that. It is the only piece about which there are minimum penalties.”
Anjie and her co-pastor Rev. Andy Woodworth are taking measures to create policies that are equal for everyone.
For example, Anjie and Andy do not perform legal marriages for anyone since they are not allowed to perform same-sex weddings under church law. But they will perform a blessing ceremony for anyone.
The other aspect of the plan does not allow LGBTQ individuals to be ordained. Boards of Ordained Ministry, which recommends candidates for licensing and ordination, must examine and not recommend “candidates who do not meet standards regarding sexuality,” the UMC website says.
Bishops also cannot dismiss complaints without reason. Just resolutions also must acknowledge all harm done and the person bringing the complaint must agree to it, according to the North Georgia Conference’s summary.
The Traditional Plan has left some congregations wondering what to do next.
Westmoreland said there was a lot of disappointment and anger among his congregation at General Conference.
Glenn Memorial has been active in fighting for LGBTQ rights and has worked to bring change to the church and the North Georgia Annual Conference. Westmoreland said the General Conference decision felt like a setback for the congregation.
“They are a Reconciling Ministries Network church, which means that they joined the network of churches that have been advocating for several years for equal rights for LGBTQ persons,” Westmoreland said.
He said some members left the church after that due to being tired of waiting for change but most of the congregation wants to stay and bring about change.
Both Anjie and Andy have seen clergy and laypeople leave the denomination because they can’t abide by this injustice anymore and the heartache of it all, Anjie said.
Anjie said that she and some colleagues are trying to figure out what to do if they can’t be Methodist anymore. She said that for some clergy, their identities are wrapped up in being part of a group they have experienced like family. She said it’s heartbreaking to lose someone because their faith community can’t affirm who they are.
“It’s hard to be Methodist right now,” Anjie said.
Neighborhood UMC has a mix of deeply Methodist members and those who have come from other denominations or who have come back to church after having been away. But members wonder how long they abide by the new plan following the 2019 General Conference.
“There’s a lot of folks really invested in can we stay Methodist, how do we resist, what does that look like,” she added.
Andy also said that it’s a learning process of figuring out how much the denomination can tell a congregation what it has to do.
“We believe there’s a way to have a church for all people that’s vital and vibrant and growing,” Anjie and Andy said collectively. “We can’t speak on behalf of our congregation yet because our congregation hasn’t made a decision, but I would feel comfortable staying in a denomination that is more moderate than I am as long as we were allowed to do ministry and affirm people in our context.”