Policies always have personal consequences, and for Arden Mitchell of Lakeland, a longstanding policy of the United Methodist Church prevented her father from performing her wedding ceremony. When Mitchell married her wife in a religious ceremony in 2012 and then again in 2013 when the state of Florida made same-sex marriage legal, her father, the Rev. T. Glenn Bosley-Mitchell, a United Methodist pastor, couldn’t officiate without risking punishment.
The church’s Book of Discipline – which contains its beliefs and policies – states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It prohibits ministers, deacons and lay pastors from participating in same-sex weddings. The policy also declares that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” shall not be ordained as ministers and deacons.
Mitchell, 33, a lifelong Methodist and a member of Lakeland’s First United Methodist Church, calls it “unfortunate” that her father was unable to officiate at her wedding.
“It was not ideal,” says Mitchell, who is director of admissions at Florida Southern College. “My dad is very liberal and accepting and vocal about it. … Something needs to happen.”
Something may be about to happen.
Starting Saturday in St. Louis, a special four-day conference will bring together more than 800 delegates from the United States and overseas to attempt to settle decades of controversy in the United Methodist Church about how gays and lesbians may participate in its congregations.
Several Lakeland residents will have prominent positions in the conference, including the Rev. Ken Carter, bishop of the church’s Lakeland-headquartered Florida Conference. Carter, the current president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, was one of three chair persons of a special commission that proposed three options to be considered at the conference, with a fourth proposal also on the table. (For a chart explaining all four plans in detail, click here.) Of the four proposals, three are given a serious chance of passing.
- The Traditional Plan would double down on the current rules, broadening the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include persons living in a same-sex marriage or civil unions, and imposing more stringent enforcement procedures for any church, pastor or bishop that violates them.
- The One Church Plan would eliminate the “incompatibility” declaration and the current prohibitions in the Book of Discipline, allowing individual churches, pastors and regional conferences to establish their own policies. Churches would decide whether to accept the appointment of LGBTQ ministers, and clergy would be permitted, but not required, to perform same-sex weddings. The plan would leave open the possibility that some liberal regions would have no limitations on gay ordinations and weddings, while in other places gay and lesbian Methodists might still be unable to be ordained or have their weddings in their own churches.
- A similar plan, The Simple Plan, would eliminate all references to homosexuality in the Book of Discipline as well as all prohibitions, leaving decisions about ordination and same-sex weddings up to regional conferences and individual bishops, clergy and congregations.
Carter and a majority of the Council of Bishops recommended the One Church Plan as the best way to avoid schism and further controversy.
Local clergy and lay people are cautious in discussing the issue but generally seem to favor the adoption of the One Church Plan. Mitchell said it would encourage churches to discuss openly questions about gays participating in the church.
“If it’s going to be local churches having that conversation, that’s a step in the right direction. The churches’ slow reaction (to welcoming gays) has been detrimental, and if progress is going to be made, I’d support (the plan),” she said.
The Florida Conference is one of the largest regional conferences in the United Methodist Church, with 700 churches and more than 280,000 members, stretching from the Apalachicola River in the Panhandle to Key West. It will be represented in St. Louis by a delegation of nine clergy persons and nine lay people that will be led by Lakeland resident Molly McEntire, 30, the conference’s mission training and volunteer coordinator and the daughter of First United Methodist’s pastor, the Rev. David McEntire.
McEntire said she and others in the delegation have been present at a series of informal meetings with clergy and laity around the state, organized by Carter and the conference staff to discuss the proposed changes.
“We’ve heard a lot of mixed reactions. We have a good idea of what most people’s feelings are,” she said. “The older generation fears change. The younger generation fears losing what we love about the United Methodist Church. That includes being a church that speaks out against injustice.”
McEntire said that there has been “a lot of sentiment” for the Traditional Plan, but she favors the One Church Plan.
“I’m a big believer in keeping the church united,” she said. “Even with differences of opinion, we can find ways to be a church and be united.”
The clergy in the Florida delegation will be led by the Rev. Alex Shanks, 40, of Lakeland, who is Carter’s assistant on the conference staff. He said there is a wide range of opinions among the conference’s hundreds of clergy about the proposals.
“The clergy are as diverse as the state of Florida. But many of the clergy strongly believe the church needs to find a way to stay together,” he said. “My general sense is that people trust Bishop Carter. He’s done a lot to reach across lines.”
The Rev. John Griswold, pastor of United Methodist Temple in Lakeland, agreed that Carter has been “a very capable leader,” and he supports the One Church Plan.
“Of the three (plans), it’s the only practical one. It’s the only one that makes sense,” he said.
He said the members of his congregation are divided “but they’re trying not to be.” However, Griswold, 60, who has been a United Methodist pastor for 36 years and identifies himself as “a single, celibate, heterosexual man,” expressed pessimism about the special General Conference.
“I have a feeling this is about a larger set of issues that we haven’t identified. Even if we resolve this, I’m not sure it’s going to resolve what’s dividing us. … By the time we get to a vote, we’ve already lost something important.”
Shanks conceded that it’s possible next week’s General Conference could maintain the status quo.
“One of the things that could happen is that we leave with nothing passing,” he said. “Change is hard.”
The controversy and the struggle to resolve it has been long and painful.
The set of rules in the Book of Discipline concerning homosexuality was put in place in 1972 at a General Conference, the church’s quadrennial meeting where delegates from around the world meet to consider policy. But at each General Conference since, there have been unsuccessful attempts to change it. The debates have been heated, with progressive voices advocating that equal treatment of gays and lesbians is a matter of Christian justice and love, while traditionalists hold that biblical injunctions and moral principles underlie the prohibitions.
Carter said the controversy has endured because the United Methodist Church is theologically diverse and because its membership is not restricted to the United States.
“I would say the conversation over 40 years has been more complex because we are a global church — 30 percent of our membership is in Africa, and in many nations there the LGBTQ identity is either illegal or taboo. We are also a denomination in the United States that is present in blue and red states. Human sexuality is complicated, as is biblical interpretation. Put these together, and you have a recipe for an extended and important conversation,” Carter said in an emailed response to questions.
At the church’s 2016 General Conference, the issue nearly caused the denomination – the second-largest Protestant church in the United States, with 6.9 million members – to split apart. Delegates appealed to the church’s bishops to find a way to settle the matter, and the bishops formed a special group, the Commission on a Way Forward, to come up with a solution. After two years of study and debate, the commission proposed three options, including the Traditional and One Church plans, and called for this week’s special General Conference to consider them.
The controversy has played out among generally declining membership across all denominations, but Carter acknowledged that the Florida Conference, like other regional conferences, has lost members because of the strife.
“Some have left our churches when we have been more open to including gay and lesbian persons, for example in baptisms and in leadership. Others have found a home and have felt accepted,” he said.
Mitchell said she and her wife, who have a 2-year-old daughter, are not frequent attenders at First United Methodist but that they have felt welcome there.
“We have not felt self-conscious. There are gay people that attend, so there hasn’t been a problem,” she said.
First United Methodist’s pastor, the Rev. David McEntire, said he has heard criticism that gays and lesbians are welcome at his church.
“The gay couples in our church know the grace of God is available to them and they’re safe here. Some churches condemn us for that,” he said. “We’ve had people leave because we allow homosexual persons in the church. But we’re not going to be a hateful, exclusive church.”
David McEntire, 64, has been a delegate to previous General conferences and will be in St. Louis as an alternate clergy delegate. He said he supports the One Church Plan.
“It recognizes the reality of what’s already there,” he said. “We’re not forcing people to choose one side or the other. The harder thing may be staying together. Stay at the table together is what I’m saying. It’s hard to count people as enemies when they’re eating together. It takes time.”
But a former assistant pastor on David McEntire’s staff said in an email that staying together is not as important as justice for gays and lesbians who may be excluded by the One Church Plan. “Sadly too many in the United Methodist Church are more focused on preserving an institution rather than the lives, loves, and calling of LGBTQ siblings,” said the Rev. Andy Oliver, who is now pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg. “It is long past time for the church to correct the harm they have been doing and do what Jesus did – work for the liberation of all people.”
Carter declined to predict whether the One Church Plan would pass.
“My role as president of the Council of Bishops … is to help create a fair process where persons of many different convictions can have input,” he said.
If the One Church Plan is adopted, the Florida Conference will then have to decide whether to ordain gays and lesbians, individual churches must decide whether to allow same-sex ceremonies in their sanctuaries, and individual pastors must decide whether they would perform such ceremonies. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a national association of conservative United Methodists, anticipating a more permissive approach, is already calling on its members to leave the denomination.
No one interviewed for this article would predict how the Florida Conference or its clergy and churches will react if they are faced with decisions about ordination and marriage of gays.
“I think some pastors and congregations would stop and think about whether they want to be part of the United Methodist Church,” Molly McEntire said.
Her father, David McEntire, admitted that his views on gays in the church have evolved, but he stopped short of saying whether he would embrace all the changes allowed in the One Church Plan.
“I talk about behavior. What’s it like to be a follower of Jesus? Love God first and love your neighbor as yourself. Do you begin with a definition of sin or loving God and neighbor?” he said. “I haven’t resolved everything. I don’t know that I’d be comfortable performing a same-sex wedding.”
Griswold predicted some people “on both sides” would leave for other churches. On a personal level, he said simply, “I do what the bishop says. That’s a commitment I’ve made. If we have a way to go forward without being too disruptive, we’ll be better off. I hope people with cool heads and warm hearts will prevail.”
Mitchell said she and her wife would like for their daughter to grow up as an active Methodist, as they did, and expressed hope that the church could put the controversy behind it.
‘It should have been settled a while ago,” she said.