In a room whose typical Sunday function is to host the after-church coffee and doughnut hour, members of Trinity United Methodist Church sat discussing the future of their congregation and denomination.
With Bibles held on laps and cups of coffee sitting on white plastic folding tables, the nearly 40 people listened to their pastor describe the recent decision of their denomination. Less than a week earlier, a multinational conference of Methodist Church leaders voted to toughen its stance on sexuality, banning gay clergy and same-sex marriage.
“We still are now on uncertain terrain,” said the Rev. Dr. Eliezer Valentín-Castañón, senior pastor, during the information session. “We are not exactly sure what will be the end result of all this conversation.”
The debate over sexuality has long been a wedge among the faithful and one that has increasing fractured the Protestant church. The congregation of Trinity on Sunday was no different.
During the presentation, some church members questioned why the church’s decision was an issue given the Bible’s denunciation of homosexuality. One member said she saw the “devil’s hand” in the debate causing the divide.
Others felt despair in the decision, saying it sent a signal to LGBTQ people that they were not welcome in Methodist pews.
Denise Berry, who has attended Trinity since 1982, said she had streamed the conference, which became increasingly difficult to watch. Good people are debating both sides of the issue, she said, but she wanted a more inclusive final decision.
“This is a vote that says you have to have a certain belief, what they call the ‘traditional belief,’” Berry said. “If you don’t have that, you need to leave the United Methodist Church. And I’m disappointed by that.”
The meeting last week in St. Louis focused on several paragraphs in “The Book of Discipline” of the church regarding sexuality. Outlined in the book, “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and practicing homosexuals are not allowed to be ordained or serve in the church. Same-sex marriages are not allowed in Methodist churches and ministers are not allowed to conduct same-sex ceremonies.
The conference was intended to bring a resolution to the church whose position on sexuality had become increasingly ambiguous. Previously, local churches and jurisdictions have cut their own path on whether to advocate for gay rights. In 2016, 500 LGBTQ Methodist clergy wrote a letter supporting the sexuality of other church members in training. A few months later, the U.S. church’s western jurisdiction elected the church’s first openly lesbian bishop. Some pastors served for same-sex marriages.
Leaders at the conference voted on three plans for the future of the church in its stance on sexuality. One would include all LGBTQ members in the church. The second would allow churches and local conferences to decide whether LGBTQ members could marry or be ordained, a plan that had widespread approval from church bishops.
The conference rejected those two plans, voting in 53 percent favor of the stricter “Traditional Plan” on sexuality.
The informational session at Trinity on Sunday was meant to explain what had been decided and answer questions on the new plan, not decide how the Frederick church would respond. There is concern among Methodists that if the decision to ban gay clergy is implemented the church could fracture into separate denominations as church leaders and churches who do not comply with the decision would be kicked out.
Valentín-Castañón counts himself among those possibly outcast pastors.
He believed the conference would vote in favor of the plan allowing individual jurisdictions to decide. He was distraught following the decision. However, clergy or churches that do not follow the agreed-upon stance will be removed, Valentín-Castañón told his congregation on Sunday.
“I do support gay and lesbian people being part of the life of the church, at all levels of the church. I do support that,” he said. “You need to be clear where I stand because part of that is if General Conference sustains this it means that I will not be able to continue being a pastor in the United Methodist Church.”
Valentín-Castañón has spent decades in the Methodist church and said it had been trending in a more progressive and accepting direction.
Demographically, members of the United Methodist Church across the United States are most likely to be white, be more than 50 years old and lean Republican. However, the majority of church members hold progressive views on social issues. For example, half of Methodists want stricter environmental regulations and about 6 in 10 believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center.
At the same time, 6 in 10 say homosexuality should be accepted and nearly half favor same-sex marriage in the church, according to Pew. Support for these positions in the Methodist Church has grown in the last decade, too, but church attendance and participation is declining.
The decision from the conference could still be reversed. In April, the church’s Judicial Council will review the plan voted on last week to determine if it is constitutional. If the decision is upheld, the stricter rules will take effect on January 1, 2020.
In the meantime, Valentín-Castañón said the church will continue its mission of acceptance.
“We are still in a ministry to all,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the sexual orientation is, who they are, where they come from. We are in ministry to all. So, that does not change. Our mission does not change.”