- LGBTQ members, others watch as global church considers potential split
- See more of our ongoing coverage of the issue here and here
Julie Reeves’ mother had a simple wish for her daughter when she sat down to inscribe her daughter’s Bible 54 years ago.
“My prayer is that you will study and use this Bible as a guide for your life and strive always to please God,” she wrote.
“And I feel I have done that,” the self-described “cradle Methodist” said. But Reeves said that while her church, Northaven United Methodist, has made her feel included, the larger denomination is an entirely different story.
Reeves and her partner of 22 years, Meg O’Malley, have watched the denomination dig in its heels on its official stance on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.
At last February’s global general conference, delegates voted 438-384 to strengthen a ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings, adopting a so-called “Traditional” plan that included harsher penalties for breaking the rules.
Another plan, dubbed the “One Church Plan,” allowed individual churches to decide whether to perform same-sex marriages and accept gay and lesbian clergy members, and eliminated language that said homosexuality was at odds with the Bible. It was rejected.
“I didn’t have my hopes up,” Reeves said of the conference. “I didn’t have confidence that the One Church Plan would pass.”
LGBTQ allies within the church, she said, had “big expectations.”
“I think the let down for them was bigger than the let down for me, because I’ve been disappointed for decades. I think the most hurtful thing for me was that it got more punitive.”
“It would be more than just losing my denomination – I’d kind of lose the foundation on which my faith was built.” – Julie Reeves
Reeves said the church’s stance in its Book of Discipline, that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” is something she and other LGBTQ members have to “continue to fight your way through.”
“And at some point, you tire and you leave,” she said.
In December, a 16-member group of United Methodist leaders had hashed out a nine-page document called “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.”
The protocol would allow the United Methodist Church to continue, but also allow the “Traditionalist” congregations to form a new denomination.
“It’s painful, but I think it’s time to separate,” Reeves said of the plan.
For O’Malley, who is not a Methodist, watching Reeves navigate her faith in the face of the denomination’s stance can be hard – even with a church family like Northaven’s.
“A different general conference – about 10 years ago, in Fort Worth? Something similar happened,” O’Malley recalled. “I feel like you reacted more strongly to that one.”
“That the General Conference for me was more painful than this last one, not because I was actually there, but because I did have hope,” Reeves agreed. “I didn’t have hope last year.”
Reeves, like all Methodists, is watching the denomination to see what unfolds, but knows there is a limit to her patience, too.
“It would be very hard to leave,” she said. “I really don’t know where I would go.”
“It would be more than just losing my denomination – I’d kind of lose the foundation on which my faith was built.”
An extended interview with Reeves and O’Malley follows. It has been edited for clarity and length.
PN: Before the last General Conference, it seemed like there was a fair amount of hope that things might change. How did it feel when the vote came back for the Traditional Plan?
JR: Well, as one of the people I think impacted most by this, I didn’t have my hopes up.
I didn’t have confidence that a One Church Plan would pass. Four ministers and a dear friend of mine that’s now a retired bishop in the church had huge confidence that the One Church Plan would pass. They had big expectations around it. And I think to let down for them was bigger than the let down for me, because I’ve been disappointed for decades with the church, really. So I think the most hurtful thing for me was that it got more punitive.
And to me, it’s sort of a reflection of our country right now and in how we’re so polarized. And so, you know, there seems to be a bigger license to hate in this country – and now in our church – than there has been in the past.
And so so for me, it was it was disappointing. But I can’t say that it was a huge let down for me, as it were.
I was surprised that the WCA had been working on this a long time. And as I told you last weekend about who’s been paying apportionments and who hasn’t, there’s a feeling based on the numbers that just a layperson can see that they’ve been directing their money not toward apportionments, but toward funding the WCA. So they were I think there they were much more buttoned-up than the people aligned with the One Church Plan thought they were.
PN: You’ve described yourself as a “cradle Methodist.” But you grow up, and at some point you come out, and you know that there is this whole passage in the Book of Discipline that says homosexuality is not compatible with the Bible. How hard is it to remain a Methodist knowing that while you have a welcoming church home at Northaven, but some even here in Dallas believe that passage to be true?
JR: Well, it’s, I guess, trying to think of a good analogy, but for me, it is kind of like you just continue. You just continue to fight your way through it. And at some point, you know, you tire and you leave. And that’s happened in Northaven with both allies and LGBTQ plus people. Not a great amount.
But, you know, people that I care about, people that I know have not necessarily gone to another church, but they just keep going. And I think it’s been very deflating for them.
You know, for me and, you know, kind of pulled out this to show you the cradle Methodist thing – this is a Bible my mom gave me in 1965 when I was seven. I had a little baby Bible, I couldn’t put my finger on it earlier, that I was given probably when I was a maybe a toddler, because you can see where I chewed on it. It was probably teething on the corners of it.
I grew up in the church, but I know for a very fact that the church I call home in Texarkana will probably not align to the vision of the One Church Plan and very well may go with the WCA. It’s painful, but I think it’s time to separate.
And if we don’t do something now, when I think it’s our best opportunity in my lifetime to make a break into it and to try to stand up for ourselves, then I think folks like me will leave.
PN: Meg, how hard is it to watch her – because she obviously loves being a Methodist, and this is something important to her? How hard is it as her spouse to watch her navigate all of this?
MO: You know, I think the church and who is in it, and that she’s really enjoyed Marty (Soper), the new minister. And I think that’s helped tremendously. But I’ve seen her over the years respond to this, and I think it hit her harder probably more so … (turning to Reeves) What was it, a different general conference like 10 years ago in Fort Worth, where something similar happened, right? We’d have to look it up, but I feel like that you got reacted more strongly to that one.”
JR: I know Eric (Folkerth, who was senior minister at Northaven and is now at Kessler Park United Methodist Church) was our pastor at the time, because we had a group go over to Fort Worth when General Conference met there.
That general conference for me was more painful than this last one, not because I was there, but I did have hope. And I guess I didn’t have hope last year.
MO: Even with all the progress, you just seem like you have kind of resigned yourself to one step forward, two steps back.
PN: How important is it to members of the LGBTQ community in the Methodist church that they be able to – just like everyone else – get married by their favorite minister, or one that they have an affinity for?
JR: For me, I guess I never thought I could get married in the church. So it was never a big deal.
MO: You never thought you’d get married in general.
JR: I never thought I could get married, but once I maybe thought I could get married, it never occurred to me that I’d be able to marry in the church. I never considered that a possibility. But I think for the younger people now and for others who may not have grown up the way I did under the stigma of being gay, I think it’s very important to them.
And I think that doing something like what the church, did, you know, a few weeks back is a first step in allowing people to renew their vows or have some sort of a more do something besides going to the justice of the peace like we did, you know?
PN: Do you think it’s important that LGBTQ youth in the church be able to see someone like them at the pulpit? There’s a lot of talk about a “culture of call,” but what does that look like to someone who the denomination has excluded?
JR: First, I think generally for the church to survive, whether it’s a Methodist church or any other church, there’s going to have to be more focus on youth and young adults to try to get them back into the church, create programming that makes them want to come back in the church.
And so if you kind of take that broad statement of how the church can just survive and you start, you know, kind of honing it down into acceptance, they will go …
MO: And they’re not gay.
JR: They’re not gay – but their dearest friends maybe. And they’re simply not going to put their money or their time into any institution that isn’t open and accepting.
So I didn’t really answer your question directly and just realized, how important is it for you to see someone in the pulpit that might be LGBTQ?
I think they’re agnostic to it. They don’t care about sexuality and the fact that all the old folks care and they’re still hung up on it. They’re just going to walk away because they’ve got something else to do. You know, there’s so much out there that the 30-year-olds or the 20 or even the 40-year-olds can do. So I think it’s important to them. But I don’t think they would look at a pulpit and say, “oh, it’s nice to see a lesbian out there.”
I don’t think they think they think that way.
MO: unless they’re thinking about that career themselves.
JR: That’s true. That’s true.
PN: So this new separation proposal has come out, and once again it seems like there is a lot of hope directed at the next General Conference. What’s your level of hope?
JR: I think that the church is at a breaking point. I think I am optimistic that there will be something done, because I think that folks like myself will have done all we can and reached the age that we are, and if nothing is done, we’ll say “good luck” and it’s time. That may be the point that I’m not resigned.
I mean, you know, it also may sound kind of weakling, like, you know, I’m not standing up for my people or something like that by staying in the church. And I’m sure that there’s a lot of people that will criticize me, I’m not waving my rainbow flag a little bit harder in making a stand and leaving.
But I’ve always been committed from that general conference in Fort Worth, which was probably when I was starting to get active in the church again.
With that as a backdrop, you know, with the Fort Worth conference being the sort of the the the crushing blow, I guess I am hopeful that we will see some movement forward.
But it’s amazing to me – the Methodist Church – remember that theme? “Open hearts, Open Minds. Open Doors?” We lived to that, you know, and that was our big marketing ploy in the last, what was it, five, ten years ago? That was the big draw at the Methodist church – “Open.” But you’re just not, and that’s got to change, or folks like myself will leave.
And frankly, probably some of those ministers that have endured it all as well will reach a point where it’s time.
PN: How hard would it be for you to leave?
JR: Very hard. You know, I don’t really know where I would go. There are lots of opportunities out there for other churches, but I don’t know that I could go somewhere else. I don’t know that I could find another place that has the foundation of the Wesleyan tradition that I believe in.
I wish everyone would go back and study John Wesley because this church has evolved into something that he would not recognize. And there’s not another denomination out there that that holds some of the Wesleyan tradition that I feel is important, so it would be more than just losing my denomination – I’d have to kind of lose my foundation on which my faith was built, which was the Wesleyan tradition. So, you know, it’d be very hard. It’ll be very hard.