In the years since she was stripped of her credentials by the United Methodist Church, Beth Stroud had hoped the denomination she calls home would move closer to welcoming gay clergy into the fold.
Stroud, who was defrocked in 2004 after telling her Philadelphia congregation that she was gay and in a relationship, watched from her Lawrenceville, N.J., home this week as the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination tackled the issue during live-streamed sessions of a General Conference meeting in St. Louis.
But after an often raucous and chaotic gathering, the church hardened its stance, passing a “Traditional Plan” that prohibited “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from serving as ministers, bans clergy from performing same-gender weddings, and toughens penalties on those who disobey.
Stroud, who recently completed her Ph.D. in religion at Princeton University, would consider returning to ministry in the United Methodist Church (UMC), but the door remains closed.
The decision — and the four-day meeting that led to it — has left the denomination divided, with conservative members relieved, progressive members disheartened, and many on all sides saddened by the hurt and anger that has emerged as a result.
“I have a vision of a church where it is understood that differences in sexual orientation are just part of God’s creation,” said Stroud, 49, who was serving as an associate pastor at First United Methodist Church of Germantown when she was defrocked.
Bishop John R. Schol of the denomination’s Greater New Jersey Conference believes that the decision will not cleave the denomination but perhaps lead to a “fraying” around the edges.
“It would not surprise me if we see some groups of churches leaving,” but the denomination is too committed to its international mission of charitable works to split, said Schol, whose conference includes more than 500 churches and 40,000 members in New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania and New York. “That’s what holds us together.”
The special session of the General Conference, a legislative meeting typically held every four years, was called to examine the denomination’s position on “human sexuality and to explore options to strengthen church unity.” Three plans were proposed.
The “One Church Plan,” which was endorsed by the denomination’s Council of Bishops, would permit individual churches, pastors, and regional conferences to make decisions about same-gender weddings and ordination of gay clergy. The Traditional Plan affirmed the UMC’s current position and toughened penalties for those who violate policy. The Simple Plan removed language in the denomination’s Book of Discipline that excludes LGBTQAI+ people from “full participation in the church.”
The passage of the Traditional Plan was largely influenced by members from outside the United States, where the church is growing. Members there are more conservative and some live in countries where homosexuality is illegal, Schol said. Some parts of the plan are being reviewed by the denomination’s Judicial Council to determine their constitutionality.
Bishop Peggy Johnson of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference plans to spend the next several weeks visiting her conference’s four districts to talk with members about the General Conference decision.
She describes her region, which includes 125,000 members in 16 counties, as “moderate to conservative.” The conference has lost at least one church that elected to leave because of frustration over the LGBT debate. The former Wesley United Methodist Church of Quarryville, a conservative congregation that was the conference’s fastest-growing church, negotiated a settlement to leave the denomination with its buildings after paying a $100,000 financial obligation to the conference, which typically would have retained church property.
“Some churches may leave. Anything is possible because of the uncertainty and grief,” Johnson said. "But often, it’s the people of a more liberal persuasion who tend to stay and work things out. I’ve heard rumblings of all stripes.”
She described herself as “leaning left” and called the General Conference decision a case of “using the codes of the church to hurt the church.” But she recognizes that those who are on the “conservative side” believe “that this is God’s will.”
For the Rev. Timothy A. Kriebel, pastor of Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Thornton, Delaware County, the decision at the General Conference evoked a “sense of gratitude” that the vote has upheld what he and his church believe is consistent with “our understanding of scripture.”
Jesus is “loving to all people, but sometimes there is confusion about being loving and accepting all behavior,” Kriebel said. Even so, “it’s not like we’re ready to party. We recognize that this issue has been divisive and pitted brother against brother and sister against sister.”
It may be that the divisions are too deep to overcome, Kriebel said.
The Rev. Chris Heckert, 41, of Haddonfield United Methodist Church, had hoped the denomination would “cast as wide a net as possible, and acknowledge and embrace all people as beloved children of God.”
Although members of 1,400-member congregation have diverse opinions about the issue, they have found a way to worship together and “unify around a common mission," Heckert said.
His district superintendent, the Rev. Myrna Bethke, plans a tour in the next few weeks to listen to what Heckert and all clergy in her Gateway South division of the Greater New Jersey Conference have to say about the decision. The district includes 61 churches in Camden and Gloucester Counties.
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“My sense is, we will need to minister to people who are hurt or disillusioned about whether they have a place in the church,” said Bethke, who favored the One Church or Simple Plans, but maintained that she is the superintendent to all members regardless of their opinion about the decision.
The effort to resolve the differences of opinion within the wider denomination have left members feeling “wounded” by the General Conference process, which has not ended the debate, said the Rev. Beth Caulfield, who lives in Gloucester County and is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association of Greater New Jersey, a regional branch of the national group which Caulfield described as "a group of orthodox churches, clergy, and laity who hold to Wesleyan theology.”
Caulfield and the WCA backed a modified version of the Traditional Plan that strengthened accountability but eased the path for congregations who chose to leave the denomination.
On the last day of the conference, Caulfield, emotionally spent after the divisive proceedings, dined with a friend who backed the One Church plan and an associate who is a leader in the Reconciling Ministries movement, which advocates for the inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the UMC.