At approximately 4:45 p.m. on Tuesday, February 26, Rev. Dr. Mark Fowler says, the United Methodist Church as he knew it died.
It was at that time, at the denomination’s international annual gathering held this year in St. Louis, that a measure (called the Traditionalist Plan) banning ordination of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage unexpectedly passed on a vote of 438–384. Fowler is the lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in downtown Madison, a congregation that has been open and affirming of LGBTQ people offically since 2009.
“It was a tragic moment,” he tells Our Lives in a heartfelt interview shortly after the conference ended. “A denomination in which there are people out to harm not only those who are on the target, but those of us who are their allies and have stood with them by invitation and other ways—we will be deprived of our orders so we cannot marry, our churches will be picked off…that will not stand. I think, ultimately, there will be two Methodist churches.”
Progressive pastors and congregations across the world have been speaking out against the vote ever since. Fowler’s own congregation has been in discussions with their Church Council and the Reconciling Ministries team to figure out next steps. The UMC’s decision is widely seen as evidence that a major split is in progress for what is currently the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
Rev. Jenny Arneson, pastor of the Sun Prairie United Methodist Church, told the Capital Times that the question of whether or not to remain in the denomination would “be part of our conversation.” The Rev. Brianna Illéné, pastor of the LGBTQ-inclusive Trinity United Methodist Church on Madison’s near west side, said, “We stand in defiance of that. We’re not going to change. We will continue to welcome LGTBQ+ people. We’re not going to stop doing weddings.”
Fowler also has strong words of opposition to the vote, but emphasized that he, like many, has no desire to tear down the things he still values about the church. “We want to resist, reject, repudiate,” he says. “Whether it’s called the United Methodist Church and has that institutional backing, I don’t think that matters a whole lot to any of us.”
To really understand the importance and impact of the vote, it’s necessary to dig into the context that surrounds it. As with anything involving a large organization and bureaucracy, says Fowler, that’s very complicated.
A long-simmering debate
The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 from a union between two predecessor Methodist groups. In 1972 a measure was passed that ultimately set the bar for the debate to come. It created a prohibition, saying that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The so-called Traditonalist Plan that reaffirmed the ban on LGBTQ inclusion used that same language.
However, Fowler notes, if one reads the full paragraph of the ‘72 measure, it’s clear that the “incompatible” sentence was tacked on after the fact and makes little sense within the rest of the language.
“The paragraph was very inclusive, very embracing, very progressive,” he notes, “but because our discipline is done as legislation, a motion was passed that added the prohibition as an amendment.”
Progressives within the UMC have since been working to push back and reaffirm the original intent of the inclusive message. At the General Assembly in 2016 the delegates hit an impasse, though. Unable to agree on legislation to address LGBTQ inclusion or exclusion, they asked their bishops to intervene.
Bishops within the UMC usually only make decisions about pastoral assignments and logistics, and act as presiding officers at conferences—not rule creators. In this case, they were asked to take over and propose a measure to address the issue. Instead, Fowler says wryly, they punted.
“The bishops were a little nervous about that kind of authority, so they did what happens and formed a commission to study this,” he explains. “When it came back they favored what was called the One Church Plan.” That measure would have allowed individual congregations to decide for themselves how inclusive or restrictive to be of LGBTQ people’s involvement. In polling it was favored by some 60% of U.S. members.
“But bishops get very nervous if people object,” Fowler goes on. “So they allowed a variety of plans to come to the floor, which confused everything and threw it right back into the very political process, except that one of [the plans] was razor sharp and ready to pass. And it did.”
Fowler says the bishops didn’t make an attempt to defend their own One Church Plan, and in fact, it never even came to the floor.
In the end, a gay delegate took to the podium to at least give the plan a reading, but the vote—and its very real damage—had already been done. After the dust settled, a large group of pro-LGBTQ delegates and others took to the floor to sing, pray, and openly weep.
Legacy of colonialism
How did it happen? The UMC has 12 million members worldwide and newer congregations especially in places like Africa and Indonesia. It was an alliance between evangelical delegates from those regions, plus the U.S. and Europe, that helped tip the scales to pass the Traditionalist Plan.
Of course, this, too, is complicated.
“The backstory, which I think needs to be the front story, is that it actually is a remnant of American and European colonialism in Africa,” Fowler says. “There are progressive African delegates and academics and leaders who basically said, ‘We must always remind ourselves that the same white male privilege and normativity that drove the American side of this vote also drove what was going on in the Philippines and in Africa.’ This is a remnant of colonialism and the form of the church that was left.”
Add in the same partisan divide that exists in American politics, and it made for a potent weapon on behalf of the restrictive rule. New, punitive measures were also added for those who disobey the edict. Pastors who perform same-sex weddings could face a one-year, unpaid suspension, with a second offense leading to removal from the clergy entirely.
“I don’t think they ever really intend to have to carry them out because I think the real intention was to break the church,” Fowler says. “If you make the punishment so high, people want to leave. They want us out. We’re an embarrassment to them.”
Further backing that assessment, a disaffiliation measure was also passed that would make it much easier for churches to leave the UMC without automatically having to give up property or other assets held by the denomination. Pastors could also leave without taking a penalty on their pensions.
Those pieces still have to be reviewed by the UMC’s judicial council to make sure it passes legal muster. Fallout won’t be limited to individuals, either, as major seminaries at schools like Emory and Duke, which have supported their LGBTQ students, face the prospect of losing grants from more conservative churches.
Dedicated to equality
Rev. Fowler isn’t ready to give up his Methodism without a fight, though, and neither are many of the LGBTQ-identified members of the church.
“Most of us who are progressive really look forward to the day when we all sit at the same table and that hearts will be changed,” he says. “I’ve been amazed at my LGBTQ colleagues who have been hurt, conference after conference, and they didn’t leave. They wanted to say, not to win a victory, but because they thought if they left then this evil would stand.”
Fowler bemoans the fact that the three largest Christian churches in the U.S.—Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, and UMC—are all restrictive of LGBTQ people.
“In a secularizing world, it’s the dominant proclamation of the gospel, which breaks our heart,” he says. “We believe…the two most important things are love of God and love of neighbor. We believe that the grace of God, which is God’s love for us, was poured out on us before we asked, and all we need to do is respond. I believe the majority of Methodists in this country would say that, if you limit the love of God in order to exclude people, then our theology is in vain. It makes no sense whatsoever.”
Fowler is sure to acknowledge the Methodist church’s checkered history on issues like slavery, race, and women’s rights (all issues that have lead to previous Methodist splits—about a dozen in all). It has taken time and work, but, he says, “We’ve bended toward a progressive, loving gospel—and opened ourselves to what God has to reveal to us about what the extremity of that is, and know that we will never find it. Our job is to reach for it.”