‘We’re still in shock’: California Methodists reject church’s hard line on LGBTQ members

The United Methodist Church came out strongly this week against same-sex marriages and inclusiveness for LGBTQ members and clergy, and California clergy and members say the conflict could split the church.

San Luis Obispo Pastor Rick Uhls said a couple members of his congregation have indicated they may already be prepared to leave.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Uhls said. “There were a lot of tears.”

On Tuesday, 438 elected leaders in the United Methodist Church (UMC) voted to retain the most socially conservative guidelines for ministers and clergy and make it easier for bishops to remove those who do not abide by them.

That tough stance now puts congregations in the Western United States at ideological odds with the much of the global Methodist faith, which has at least 12 million members, and could lead to pastors and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) church members in leadership positions being stripped of their duties and rejected by the church.

Action could also be taken against heterosexual clergy who refuse to enforce the rules or who carry out or recognize same-sex marriages.

Pastor Rick Uhls, of SLO’s Methodist Church, discusses why he spoke out on socia media against the United Methodist Church’s recent vote to reject same-sex marriage and deny ordination of LGBT ministers and clergy. David Middlecamp

United in opposition

A pastor at San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church since 2012, Uhls said his congregation and others are overwhelmingly opposed to the church’s hard line.

“The hope was that we could finally put these issues of human sexuality behind us and start talking about the things Jesus Christ actually talked about,” Uhls said. “It’s doing nothing to attract people to our church.”

The church’s anti-LGBTQ stance has led to talks about Western U.S. congregations breaking away and forming their own, more socially progressive church.

California Methodist churches belong to the California-Pacific Conference, one of eight Western regional conferences of the United States that make up the overall UMC’s Western Jurisdiction, which reaches from California to Alaska and Wyoming to Guam.

Reached for comment by email Friday, Diane Degnan, UMC’s director of public relations, declined to answer questions regarding the future of LGBTQ members and clergy, citing an upcoming church review of the constitutionality of the plan, and referred questions about a possible split by Western congregations to the California-Pacific Conference.

James Kang, director of communications and innovation for the conference, said in an email Friday that the conference is united with the entire Western Jurisdiction in opposing the plan, which is set to go into effect in 2020.

Asked whther the clashing values could lead to a split, Kang said it’s too early to tell.

“Right now, there is only talk of how to stay one church,” he wrote. “So, there’s no way to speculate on what anyone would do in a hypothetical situation.”

The Rev. K Karen, left, of St. Paul & St. Andrew United Methodist Church in New York joins other protesters in song and prayer outside the United Methodist Church’s special session of the general conference in St. Louis, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. America’s second-largest Protestant denomination faces a likely fracture as delegates at the crucial meeting move to strengthen bans on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings) Sid Hastings AP

A way forward?

The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline did not contain any language about homosexuality prior to 1972, when the General Conference, the denomination’s primary legislative body, adopted the language that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in (the church).”

Since then, its geographically and culturally diverse congregations around the globe have grappled with the issue of how to deal with its members and clergy who are LGBTQ.

At a four-day special session of the church’s General Conference Feb. 23-26, thousands of church members, including an elected delegation of 864 elected clergy and lay leaders, met in St. Louis to vote on a report by the Commission on a Way Forward, which identified three options for how the church can address issues related to human sexuality.

Those included the “simple plan,” which would remove all language in the Book of Discipline that excludes LGBTQ people from full participation; the conservative “traditional plan,” which would affirm the current restrictive language and strengthen enforcement for violations; and the “one church plan,” which would give individual churches and conferences the authority to draft their own rules regarding LGBTQ participation.

That plan — which was endorsed by the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church — also would have removed some of the language in the Book of Discipline that limits LGBTQ participation.

The session concluded with the delegation voting 53 percent to 47 percent in favor of the traditional plan, which the church said in a news release “increases accountability” by making it easier for bishops to enforce penalties. Those penalties could include defrocking of ministers and the firing of church members in leadership positions.

Some parts of the adopted traditional plan were ruled unconstitutional, however, and the church says it “will take some time to clarify which parts will become part of our church law and which parts will not.”

“We continue to teach and believe that all persons are welcomed in the church, all persons are persons of sacred worth, and we welcome all to receive the ministry of Jesus,” Bishop Ken Carter, president of the Council of Bishops, said in a news release. “Human sexuality is a topic on which people of faith have differing views.”

UMC spokeswoman Degnan said that the petitions of the traditional plan that were passed have been sent to the church’s Judicial Council to review their constitutionality at a meeting April 23-26.

“We will not be able to confirm the final disposition of this matter until we hear their decision,” Degnan wrote in an email.

‘We grieve for them’

Jason Takagi of San Luis Obispo attended the general conference special session last weekend as an observer, saying there was a large number of progressive observers this year motivated to participate because of the proposed restrictions on LGBTQ members.

Takagi, who served as the San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church’s district lay leader advising his local congregation on church-wide matters, said that about 60 percent of the voting delegation was from outside the U.S., including a large number from socially conservative countries in Africa and Latin America. He estimated about two-thirds of delegates from the U.S. were in favor of inclusivity.

“The atmosphere was extremely tense with every vote that they took,” Takagi said Friday. “It did seem to be this clash of cultures and biblical interpretation.”

Takagi, who is gay, said he personally is not worried about repercussions for his sexuality, because he feels supported by the majority will of the Western Jurisdiction and the local bishop, which he said have made incredibly powerful statements about equality.

JJ Warren of New York embraces Julie Arms Meeks of Atlanta during protests outside the United Methodist Church’s 2019 Special Session of the General Conference in St. Louis, Mo., Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The United Methodist Church faces a likely surge in defections and defiance after delegates at a crucial conference voted to strengthen bans on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings) Sid Hastings AP

While he said that what happened at the general conference may not have much practical effect in the West, he is worried about the future for LGBTQ members of more conservative jurisdictions.

“It’s heartbreaking that we can’t protect them,” he said. “We grieve for them.”Despite that fear, Takagi said the process has also been empowering for the socially progressive congregations who are standing together on the issue.

“One of the speakers (in the general conference) did say that the this whole issue has brought more light to the struggle,” Takagi said. “I think it was important that this is highlighting that the West needs to do something and have the resolve to not just use words but to take action.”

“If that means separating (from the UMC), that may be the ending we need,” he said.

‘We will not enforce these rules’

Rev. Diane Rehfield, pastor of the Atascadero United Methodist Church, said Friday that the tentative adoption of the UMC’s traditional plan is a “wrong turn” for the denomination, and that she and other local pastors intend to be vocal about it.

“People are hurt. They’re angry,” Rehfield said by phone. “I’m very disappointed that this is the public image of our church — this is not the way I feel about our church.”

She said that as the process plays out, she’s encouraging her congregation to hang in there, take a deep breath, and know that her church would “absolutely not” limit participation or services to anyone.

“I firmly believe and can back it up biblically that God loves everybody,” she said. “There are no second-class citizens in my church.”

SLO Methodist Church’s Pastor Uhls, who’s been preaching since 1987, said his congregation includes many LGBTQ members, some in leadership roles, and though he has not personally officiated a same-sex marriage, other churches in the county have.

Since making his position public on social media this week, Uhls said has received mostly supportive notes, but also some push-back.

It wouldn’t be the first time for the outspoken community leader, who in May 2017 received volumes of hate mail and messages after he condemned a San Luis Obispo High School teacher’s letter in a student publication that quoted a Bible verse in saying that people committing homosexual acts “deserve to die.”

Pastor Diane Rehfield leads a Christmastime service at Atascadero Methodist Church. “I firmly believe and can back it up biblically that God loves everybody,” she told The Tribune. “There are no second-class citizens in my church.”

“I would expect it from folks who were not part of the Christian Church, but all but two came from members of other Christian churches,” Uhls said, describing letters he received accusing him of “leading people on the path to hell.”

“The funny thing is, Jesus Christ didn’t say one word about homosexuality, but there’s a whole lot of folks running around in the name of Jesus Christ saying we’re doing something wrong,” he said. “I can’t figure it out.”

While no local clergy or church lay leaders are at imminent danger of excommunication, he personally knows clergy in other jurisdictions who could well be stripped of their duties.

“We have been clear that we will not enforce these rules,” he said. “And that may result in the United Methodist Church getting rid of us.”

Should the UMC solidify the restrictions and the Western Jurisdiction pull away, there would be a host of logistical challenges involving property, pensions, and other issues.

“There is a sense that we’ve given it our best shot,” Uhls said. “And it could be that it’s time to become a different church under the Methodist discipline.”

What that would look like and how the new church would support itself remain totally up in the air.

“The United Methodist Church is doing some great things right now all around the world, and if we blow ourselves apart, we wouldn’t be able to do some of those things,“ Rehfield said. “But I think if, heaven forbid, this is all going to take effect, we would have to leave.”

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.