Martha Stokes says she can’t remember a time when the United Methodist Church wasn’t arguing over homosexuality. It was already an issue in 1972, at her confirmation, when the Fieldale native was 11 years old.
“All of my young adult and adult life as a United Methodist, this has been on the table,” she said. “It has grown so much more divisive. It’s grown so much more hurtful.”
To bring the conflict to the end, the nearly 17 -million-member United Methodist Church is set to vote in May on a plan to split up its 52-year-old union. And many around Virginia and the country are considering what that might mean for their congregations.
The proposal has come after a year of growing division.
Today, Stokes is director of church and community relations for Pinnacle Living, the Richmond-based nonprofit that oversees Methodist retirement communities across Virginia, including Hermitage Roanoke. Twice, she has led the Virginia delegation to the UMC’s worldwide General Conference, including last year when a narrow majority of delegates voted to strengthen existing prohibitions against same-sex marriage and the ordination of noncelibate gay clergy and to institute stricter punishments for flouting those rules.
Since then, calls for change have grown louder in Virginia and across the U.S.
“There’s certainly been a pretty seismic shift in how especially folks who are more on the centrist or progressive side have begun to show their resistance,” she said. “There’s just a level of advocacy, a level of response that is very different for Virginia United Methodists.”
“The whole tenor of the conversation became more rancorous, more vitriolic, more polarized, so that when folks would come together for meetings, the atmosphere was not what you would expect from a Christian community,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Ohio-based Wesleyan Covenant Association that advocates for conservative views on homosexuality.
To help resolve the conflict, Boyette joined a 16-member committee that drafted the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” Announced in January, the proposal has support from a broad coalition of bishops, pastors and lay people.
If accepted at the denomination’s General Conference set for May in Minneapolis, the protocol would allow traditionalists and others to split from the existing UMC without rancor and take their properties, pensions and some seed money with them. A remaining centrist UMC would allow traditionalist, centrist and progressive views on sexual ethics to coexist.
The protocol offers a path to grace, Boyette said. “No other church has achieved what the United Methodist Church is poised to achieve through this protocol: A civil, amicable resolution of irreconcilable differences in a way that seeks to bless every person who is involved.”
On this, progressives have found common ground with traditionalists.
“This just seems to be the most grace-filled way that we can honor and recognize our theological differences and hopefully move forward with branches of Methodism that can grow and truly be back at the work that we’re called to be about, rather than just continuing this now 48-year conversation and arguing,” Stokes said.
But it is far from assured that a split will be approved, and if it is, area congregations will face sometimes tough choices and reorganization.
Prayer and discernment
Virginia is home to one of the country’s largest UMC annual conferences, and the Roanoke District alone comprises 69 churches. Here, lay people and clergy are wrestling with what the proposed split might mean for them and their congregations.
“There will be many voices on this issue,” said the Rev. Moonsup “Paul” Song, pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in downtown Christiansburg. “We are praying to God for discerning spirit. We trust in God.”
Nearby St. Paul, the Rev. Ryan Schaeffer leads Asbury United Methodist in a traditionally African American section of Christiansburg . He also pastors Fieldstone United Methodist, a contemporary congregation in Blacksburg.
He said there have been questions from both churches about a potential separation, but he doesn’t know which way either congregation will go if a split is approved.
“Regardless of what happens in the denomination, they are … committed to being places of worship where all people are welcome and accepted for who they are,” he said.
If the denomination does split, it will be painful even for those who support it, according to Schaeffer.
“The biggest concern for me is the relationships that have taken years to build and will be hurt or broken or at least there will be a sense of separation,” he said. “There will be churches where I have attended or served that I won’t see at conferences anymore.”
Still, for himself, Schaeffer said he wants all of his family members to feel welcome in the full life of the churches he serves.
“So I long for a day when our LGBTQ siblings will be able to marry and be ordained,” he said. “That’s my hope.”
It took a lot of work for the denomination to get to a hopeful place.
The Rev. Tom Berlin is pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon and helped author the protocol over several months. Sometimes, the process, mediated by Washington, D.C., attorney Kenneth Feinberg, seemed on the verge of collapse.
But Feinberg — who helped disperse $8.5 million for victims of the April 16, 2007, shootings at Virginia Tech — kept the Methodists coming back to the table.
Now, with an agreement reached and a proposal on the table, “we are inviting everyone to enter into a space of peacemaking,” Berlin said. “I think there are some possibilities here that have never been in front of us before. This is a new way to think about this. This is a new way to do this work.”
But, he wouldn’t necessarily lay odds on passage. Many people believed last year that the One Church Plan — which was structured much like the protocol’s vision for a centrist UMC — would win the worldwide vote. It didn’t.
The Virginia delegation was split on the One Church Plan, and many delegates voted with the traditionalists, Stokes said.
Even if the church votes to stay together, it may change.
“Either it changes by vote at the general conference, or it changes by people making decisions individually about where they will continue to worship,” Stokes said. “I love being United Methodist. It’s all I’ve ever known in my life, but I don’t know that if the church continues as a whole on this more traditional pathway that it is the place for me.”