Austin Adkinson wasn’t surprised at the outcome in St. Louis, but he was disappointed.
Adkinson, the pastor at Haller Lake United Methodist Church in North Seattle, was in St. Louis this week for the United Methodist Church General Conference, a meeting of church leaders, representatives, and laypeople from across the globe. At hand was a contentious issue, and one that may ultimately divide the church: LGBTQ inclusion.
A vote was held Tuesday on whether or not to reform United Methodist Church (UMC) policy, which currently bans "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from serving as ministers, and claims that the "practice of homosexuality [is] incompatible with Christian teaching." Adkinson, who identifies as queer, was part of a delegation offering an alternative to the church’s anti-queer policy. The vote did not go as he’d hoped: In a 53 to 47 percent vote, the church voted to affirm the current doctrine.
“I was mentally prepared but it's still deeply painful,” Adkinson told me in a phone call from St. Louis on Wednesday. The vote will not, however, change anything for Haller Lake United Methodist, which welcomes queer people. This is true of most Methodist churches in the Western Jurisdiction, a regional conference of the westernmost states that has opted not to enforce anti-gay rules or punish churches that practice inclusion.
In a statement, the Western Jurisdiction affirmed its commitment to LGBTQ inclusion. “Today we acknowledge the fracture of this body, yet we worship a God who tells us that the body of Christ has many parts, all equally valued,” it reads. “Rooted in Wesleyan tradition, grounded in Scripture and committed to mission and ministry, the Western Jurisdiction intends to continue to be one church, fully inclusive and open to all God’s children, across the theological and social spectrum.”
Jeremy Smith, the pastor at Seattle First Church next to the Seattle Center, was also advocating for a more progressive doctrine at the conference. When reached by phone, he said that there a lot of queer people both in his congregation and his church’s leadership, and there has been for years. But while the acceptance of queer people has vastly increased in recent decades in the U.S., both in secular and many religious communities, this isn’t true everywhere else, and that’s one reason, Smith said, that the UMC remains so regressive on this issue. The church has 12 million members across the globe, many of them from conservative nations where homosexuality isn’t just taboo, it’s illegal. The UMC, for instance, has nearly 5 million members in Africa, and the various cultural differences makes even discussing sexuality complex. “We're not even good at talking about sex in English,” Adkinson said, “now try doing it across different cultures and languages.”
Adkinson says that anti-gay conservatives in the U.S. took advantage of the rift. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, an alliance that represents the church’s more orthodox wing, threatened to leave if the vote didn’t go in their favor. Now, progressive congregations may be likely to leave instead, further splitting an already divided denomination.
While this vote is unlikely to impact policy in the Western Jurisdiction, both Adkinson and Smith have heard from concerned congregants. “We celebrate LGBT persons at all levels of the church,” Smith said. “But anyone who goes to the UMC website would see a very different story. I am most concerned that people will not give us a chance because they will see that we are part of a denomination that is not inclusive.”
LGBTQ leaders and allies are not going down quietly. According to the New York Times, shortly after the vote, “some delegates began singing church songs and chanting, ‘We’re queer,’ and ‘This is our church!’” Smith said that like Adkinson, he wasn’t surprised at the outcome of the vote, but he thinks in St. Louis he saw a “new spirit of resistance.” He plans to continue fostering that back in Seattle.