Senior Pastor Skip Johnson stood at the front of Brookhaven United Methodist Church on a recent Sunday morning and delivered his sermon holding the UMC’s Book of Discipline in one hand, the Bible in the other.
“When I held the books up, I said, ‘These aren’t really equivalent,’” Johnson said he told his congregants. He describes one book as God’s words as stated through scripture, while the other contains the doctrine of the church as legislated by the UMC’s governing bodies.
Johnson’s sermon came days after the UMC’s global legislative body – the top governing body of the denomination known as the General Conference — voted in February to uphold and reinforce the denomination’s ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy from serving. The vote also ensures the passage, “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” remains in the Book of Discipline.
In the wake of the controversial vote, local churches in Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Buckhead and Sandy Springs are struggling with the divisiveness in their own congregations. Pastors are ministering to LGBTQ members deeply wounded by the stern message while also caring for their parishioners who support the vote. And through it all the entire denomination is facing a glaring reality that its decades-old clash on human sexuality may never be resolved.
The local churches are also having to respond to the real threat of a schism. More and more traditional and evangelical churches are banding together to draw a line in the sand against same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy. The leader of the West African Conference is calling for a split. A 2018 survey by United Methodist Communications and Research NOW found that 44 percent of respondents identified as “Conservative-Traditional,” according to a story in the Christian Post.
Progressive churches are stepping up as well. The United Methodist Church in Germany has announced it will not abide by the General Conference’s vote. More than 1,000 clergy and members of the Iowa Conference signed a statement denouncing the vote and clergy members said they will conduct same-sex marriages despite the ban.
Johnson, however, said he is hopeful the church can find a way to come together and remain as one. He and many other Methodists follow the methodology of taking tradition, reason, experience and then scripture to begin and have conversations as they “seek to understand what God is asking us of this time,” he said.
“The church been here before,” Johnson said, including a time when women could not serve as clergy. The former Methodist Church’s General Conference voted in 1956 to allow women to become pastors. The UMC, founded in 1968 as a union of the Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church, has always allowed women ministers.
“This is something we’ll move beyond,” he said.
Sara Webb Phillips, pastor at North Springs UMC in Sandy Springs, publicly denounces the vote, but said she will abide by the rules. The vote angered and hurt her personally, she said. “It doesn’t send a welcoming message that God loves all people equally,” she said.
North Springs UMC is a multiethnic, multicultural church that welcomes all people and includes LGBTQ members and also supporters of the General Conference’s vote, Phillips said. But Phillips said she doesn’t understand why the UMC focuses its bans on homosexuality.
“I believe if you are going to do a literal interpretation of scripture, you need to do it across the board. Scripture doesn’t single [homosexuality] out.”
The UMC is the second largest mainline Protestant denomination with approximately 7 million members in the U.S. and nearly 6 million members in Africa, Asia and Europe.
The United Methodist Church is a denomination of Methodism that was founded by John Wesley in the 1700s as part of a movement within the Church of England. There is no one Methodist church, rather churches belong to numerous denominations, such as the United Methodist Church. Other denominations include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Wesleyan Church and Church of the Nazarene.
The North Georgia Conference of the UMC includes 800 churches including those in metro Atlanta with approximately 350,000 members.
Keith Boyette of Virginia is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, an evangelical group founded in 2016 to support the UMC’s conservative stances, including the anti-gay legislation approved at the General Conference.
The group has a North Georgia contact person who referred calls to Boyette. The group did not know how many members they have in Georgia, but Boyette boasted the group includes 1,500 churches worldwide.
“We formed to encourage in this season of conflict and controversy the work for the church is in upholding its historic stances,” he said. “Gratefully, the General Conference reaffirmed the historic position of the church.”
Boyette said because the UMC is a global church with 40 percent of its congregants living outside the U.S., other cultures play key roles in the debate over LGBTQ rights. He did not go so far as to say a split was imminent, but that he did not know believe there could be a meeting of the minds by those on opposite sides of the issue.
“I personally believe our difference are irreconcilable and that it is very hard to hold together such diametrically opposed understandings of the church,” he added.
Rev. Dan Brown of Dunwoody Methodist Church served as an ordained member of the North Georgia Conference for 38 years before joining Dunwoody UMC in 2014.
In a written statement, Brown said the UMC denomination has been struggling with this issue for more than 40 years. The response of United Methodist churches all across the nation to the decision has been strong and mixed, he said.
“We have had that same mixed reaction at Dunwoody United Methodist Church. Many feel deeply wounded by the decision. Many others agree with it,” he said. “In my experience at our church, I find that all are looking to the authority of scripture for answers, but they often interpret the Bible differently.”
Although the General Conference has ruled on banning LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage, Dunwoody UMC will continue to operate as it has with “open hearts, open minds, and open doors,” Brown said.
The vote is slated to go into effect January 2020 unless other compromises are reached. Anne Burkholder, Associate Dean of Methodist Studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, is hopeful a schism can be avoided.
“It’s not over until it’s over. And it’s really not over,” she said.
Emory University was founded by the former Methodist Episcopal Church which later became the United Methodist Church. The university is LGBTQ-friendly and its president, Claire E. Sterk, wrote in an open letter that while the university remains close to the UMC, she “passionately disagree[d]” with the General Conference vote.
The General Conference meets again in May 2020 and all kinds of events could happen, Burkholder said. The Judicial Council meets in April and could rule the February vote was unconstitutional because some delegates voted that were not supposed to vote.
In Buckhead and Brookhaven, where there is a lot of diversity, there are going to be churches that are not going to support the decision, she said. Of course, there are some conservative churches that are pleased with what happened, she said.
Many General Conference delegates come from countries where being gay is illegal or where gays are persecuted, Burkholder wrote in a piece for The Christian Century. In the U.S., 60 percent of Methodists support same-sex marriage, according to studies. The differences seem at times too wide to be able to close the gap, Burkholder said.
“I think we’re all very tired of this regardless of the position and don’t see a compromise,” she said.