Christ United Methodist Church in Rochester declared open opposition to the larger church this month.
Months after the global United Methodist Church voted in St. Louis to maintain its stance against homosexuality, the Rochester church is proclaiming its opposition to that decision — and suggesting its differences over the issue might be irreconcilable.
The Rochester church’s statement comes in the form of six doors installed on the building’s north side and painted in Pride Flag colors. Each door contains a single word. Together they read: Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.
Large rainbow flags have hung in the church portico in the past to show support for the LGBT community, but given recent events, the doors’ installation during Pride Month upped the ante.
“This seemed like a powerful way to say, we do not stand in solidarity with the larger United Methodist Church,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Macaulay, the church’s head pastor. “And in fact, we are joining with others to discern what’s the next step for us as a congregation.”
The Rochester church’s open declaration reflects a larger conflict within the church that has been raging for years and is raising questions about whether the larger church is heading toward a break-up.
The decision made during a special session General Conference in St. Louis in February brought it to a boil.
Delegates at the global conference voted to re-affirm the denomination’s stance against homosexuality and gay marriage. But they went beyond that. They also approved measures to enforce the church’s traditional position, opening clergy members to possible suspension or loss of credentials for performing a same-sex marriage.
Previously, bishops had been given discretion to handle a complaint against a pastor, but that was replaced with what one church leader called “mandatory penalties.”
“There have been mandated penalties now imposed, which is why we’re so disheartened by this, because we have not imposed a penalty before,” said the Rev. Cindy Gregorson, director of connectional ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference.
The Rochester church is part of a larger network of churches called the Reconciling Ministries Network that argues the church should be open to all people, particularly those from the LGBT community.
The dispute is global in nature. Many of United Methodist Church’s members come from the South or countries like Africa and the Philippines, which tend to be more culturally conservative.
The church’s stance against homosexuality has been part of the church’s Book of Discipline since 1972. And for years, leaders who share Macaulay’s views have been organizing to change or repeal the church doctrine against homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
Now these churches are wondering how they will affiliate with the larger church, if at all. Macaulay said she doesn’t have an answer to that question yet.
“What churches like ours are left to determine is, how will we affiliate and with whom,” Macaulay said. “What will the United Methodist Church look like? Because churches like ours cannot bear to say any longer — we never did — that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The issue is personal for Macaulay. Her father was a pastor who was transgender before the term gained wide circulation. Her dad’s struggle for identity became so painful that she once attempted to end her life. But eventually her dad was able to emerge from that struggle and create a ministry that served other transgender people, Macaulay said.
“I’ve seen what happens when people feel like their very existence is not welcomed by the community of faith,” Macaulay said. “And I will do everything I have to make sure that we actually do have a radically welcoming place here at the church.”
The tension within the church reflects in many ways the larger inward divisions in the country over cultural issues, between red and blue states.
Church leaders fear that the infighting within the church will undermine its mission. The United Methodist Church is a vast organization with 12 million members globally. That global reach has made it a force in education and health care, as well as in disaster relief.
“There’s heartbreak in the fact that the very thing that we offer, which is this astounding witness for healing and hope, will be truncated severely by this break-up,” Macaulay said.
A global conference planned for 2020 in Minneapolis could ultimately determine the church’s direction, Gregorson said.
One possibility is that the denomination dissolves into separate entities but remains under the umbrella of the United Methodist theology. Another is that the traditionalist, conservative wing of the church drives out the progressive elements of the church. And yet another scenario is that the progressive wing stays in the church and continues its resistance.
“The United Methodist Church as it has existed is going to change and shift, and there is definitely a movement to either divide, dissolve or reform,” Gregorson said. “What we don’t know yet is which of those pathways is going to be the one that gains traction.”