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As the United Methodist Church grapples with its stance on LGBTQ members and clergy, churches in Raleigh are mounting a “sacred resistance.”
Eddie McDaniel was raised Baptist in Winston-Salem.
“I grew up in the church, I loved music and loved God,” McDaniel says. “But I always struggled with my sexuality and was told that, pretty much, I would go to hell for being gay. So, I never spoke the words but I always knew inside who I was.”
Decades later, McDaniel and his partner of 27 years, Derrick, found a diverse, welcoming, fully accepting congregation at Open Table United Methodist Church close to downtown. McDaniel now serves on the the council of the nearly two year-old church that operates in what used to be Trinity UMC on Bloodworth Street.
“I tell all my friends to come by and see the wonderful things that are happening here,” McDaniel says. “This church is very open and inclusive. I’ve never felt excluded in any way. I feel and have been told that I’m a vital part of the church, that it wouldn’t be the same without me because we all play a part there.”
Though UMC bylaws don’t allow for same-gender marriage or for the ordination of openly gay members as clergy, the UMC in the U.S. had, since May, been building consensus around a “One Church Plan,” meaning individual churches that comprise the third largest faith group in the nation could do whatever they saw fit in regards to the LGBTQ community—pastors could marry gay couples and anyone could serve in church leadership positions if that was what a church like Open Table, and dozens of other United Methodist churches in Raleigh, so desired, without fear of punishment.
But, at a February meeting in St. Louis, UMC leaders from around the world narrowly voted to uphold the church’s tradition of opposition to gay marriage and LGBTQ clergy and to punish those who broke the church’s rules. Methodist leaders from Russia and countries in Africa supported the move but it left progressive Methodists in the U.S. deeply disappointed.
“This was, in our opinion, like an attempt at a hostile takeover by more conservative members of our denomination,” says Open Table’s Pastor Jason Butler. “We reject that vote in full and will not live under an authority that oppresses our friends, or anyone.”
“The reality of all of this is the damage we’re doing to the Church with the big “c,” not just the United Methodist Church, and to LGBT people in our world and community,” says the Rev. Elizabeth Roberts who leads Fairmont UMC on Clark Avenue. “When we talk about the outcome of this, that is first and foremost.”
The outcome Roberts refers to will be determined when the UMC’s Judicial Council meets in April, and could go into effect in 2020. Now, she, Butler and other Methodist leaders in Raleigh are “making sure our community knows we remain a church open to all people,” in Roberts’ words.
“We have this season of transition, of unclarity,” Butler says. “Our stance will be to offer a sacred resistance to this because what happened in St. Louis is not indicative of the American church.”
This reckoning could culminate in a schism, an outcome many American Methodist leaders are desperate to avoid. If the UMC abandons the One Church Plan and doubles down on its stance on LGBTQ issues, pastors who defy the rules could open themselves, and their churches, to punishment.
“I do believe the church will split on this but the phoenix out of the ashes will arise another movement,” says Judson Fraley, an openly gay member at Open Table who is also a licensed minister in the African Episcopal Church of Zion. And, as Roberts notes, the Methodist church has been divided before, such as on the topic of slavery.
“It’s not an equitable [analogy] all the time, but in many towns in North Carolina, you would see Methodist Episcopal Church South and Methodist Episcopal Church and the designation there was, one allowed for slavery and the other didn’t,” Roberts explains. “Now, they are all the United Methodist Church. That is what I love about being Methodist. We always had this big tent under which we all live, but I guess some people decided we can’t all live under it anymore.
Regardless of the direction in which the UMC at large decides to go, Roberts and Butler are emphatic that their churches, at least, will always welcome members from the LGBTQ community.
“Christianity has a long line of people who stood up for what was right and were punished,” says Butler. “We have a calling to do what is right, to follow love and proclaim God’s love. If there is punishment or consequences for that, that is part of following Jesus.”
“I pray that we continue to focus on what God teaches us about loving your neighbor,” says McDaniel, the Open Table council member and congregant. “It doesn’t mean deciding which ones, what your sexual orientation is, your race, how much money you make. Loving your neighbor means loving your neighbor.” ■
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