ST. LOUIS (AP) — The United Methodist Church, America's second-largest Protestant denomination, faces a likely surge in defections and acts of defiance after delegates at a crucial conference Tuesday rejected a move to ease the faith's ban on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy.
Some supporters of greater LGBT inclusion were in tears, while others vented their anger after delegates, on a 449-374 vote, defeated a proposal that would have let regional and local church bodies decide for themselves on gay-friendly policies.
"Devastation," was how former Methodist pastor Rebecca Wilson of Detroit described her feelings. "As someone who left because I'm gay, I'm waiting for the church I love to stop bringing more hate."
Delegates then took up a competing measure, known as the Traditional Plan, that would tighten enforcement of the LGBT bans and encourage Methodists who oppose those policies to leave the church. It won majority support in a preliminary vote on Monday.
The Traditional Plan's success was due to an alliance of conservatives from the U.S. and overseas. About 43 percent of the delegates are from abroad, mostly from Africa, and overwhelmingly support the LGBT bans.
If the bans were eased, "the church in Africa would cease to exist," said the Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia. "We can't do anything but to support the Traditional Plan — it is the biblical plan."
The deep split within the church was evident in several fiery speeches opposing the Traditional Plan.
"If we bring this virus into our church, it will bring illness to us all," said the Rev. Thomas Berlin of Herndon, Virginia. He predicted many Methodist churchgoers and some regional bodies would leave the church, while others would "stay and fight," performing same-sex weddings even if it meant punishment.
Senior Pastor Mattox of the First United Methodist Church in Rogers says for him, today was a sad day for his church. He says he's been getting all sorts of texts, calls and even personal visits from people who are either confused and saddened by the outcome or overjoyed by today's vote.
"Here’s what we know. We are a United Methodist congregation were committed to loving people, all people, LGBTQ all people," Mattox said.
Pastor Mattox says the church will continue to love all people.
With his church being a part of the Arkansas United Methodism, which is 660 churches with over 130,000 members, he believes with all of his heart that the church will not stop showing love and acceptance for all members of the community regardless of their sexual orientation.
"I’m not blaming anyone, I’m just saying, it’s a recognition of who we are as a global church that we might feel differently here in Rogers on in Arkansas. When we meet as a general conference we have to hear what the delegates say and how the conference results," Mattox said.
Even though some may feel differently about the issues in the state, he says the future of the United Methodist Church will always be the same.
"Our future will always be to make disciples for Jesus Christ who make connections in their communities and in their world and make a difference. We will continue to strive to do that. There may be some hard feelings and misunderstanding and very very much pain but I’m praying we will work through that pain and be real and be authentic and be helpful to all of Gods people," Mattox said.
5NEWS reached out to the non-profit 'Northwest Arkansas Equality' and have not heard back, but they did post on their Facebook page that they are deeply disappointed with the church's decision.
Many supporters of the more liberal plan stood in support as Berlin spoke. Some wore rainbow-motif garments or sat behind rainbow banners.
The Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, a pastor from Portland, Maine, pledged defiance of the Traditional Plan, tweeting: "I will not participate in your bigotry, sin & violence."
An association of Methodist theological schools warned that if the Traditional Plan passes, the church "will lose an entire generation of leaders in America."
Formed in a merger in 1968, the United Methodist Church claims about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the United States.
While other mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Episcopal and Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches, have embraced gay-friendly practices, the Methodist church still bans them, though acts of defiance by pro-LGBT clergy have multiplied.
The United Methodists of Arkansas released the following statement Tuesday (Feb. 26).
"The United Methodist Church's General Conference voted to pass the Traditional Plan by a vote of 438 to 384 on the final day of its special session in St. Louis, Missouri.
The Traditional Plan seeks to reinforce the current language of the Book of Discipline regarding the ordination of the LGBTQ clergy and the performance of same-sex unions, as well as strengthen enforcement against clergy and churches who disregard those rules.
Bishop Gary Mueller of the Arkansas Annual Conference will be offering a statement for churches in Arkansas via the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church website later this evening.
The Arkansas Annual Conference is made up of more than 660 congregations in five districts, with more than 130,000 members."