As differing beliefs about human sexuality threaten to break up the United Methodist Church, Charleston-area congregations are hoping for unity and clinging to their values.
The church's top lawmaking body is assembling in a special session in St. Louis, where the denomination will decide whether to permit same-sex weddings in churches and ordain openly gay clergy — hot-button topics that already have caused several UM congregations nationwide to exit the denomination.
Other Methodist congregations, including at least one in Charleston, have denounced the Methodist Book of Discipline's stance that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
"We reject that entirely," said Stanton Adams, director of communications for Two Rivers Church, A United Methodist Community. "That is not consistent with our values. That is not something we support as a congregation."
The congregation started two years ago as a 12-member group that embraced inclusiveness. Today, it boasts around 100 members of various backgrounds who attend worship at a local high school. Many of the parishioners grew up Methodist.
"The values that our community established have really resonated with those people," said Charles Monteith, chairman of the church board. “We’ve seen a lot of young families. We’ve seen a lot of people who’ve come to us who’ve been out of church for decades because of pain from the church."
The congregation has no openly gay ordained ministers, and the church hasn't married any same-sex couples or been asked to do so. But the group has LGBTQ parishioners and staff members, and the congregation said that its values, such as inclusiveness and the worth of LGBTQ people, are not up for debate by the 2019 Methodist General Conference.
Church leaders said they haven't had any formal conversations about whether Two Rivers would exit or remain under the denomination based on the conference's decision. While they hope the Methodist church can remain united, Two Rivers members are more concerned about affirming human worth.
"The outcome of the conference won’t have an impact on our core belief system. What we believe and what we value is not confined to any particular space or institution. For us, the Gospel of Jesus is our primary concern," Adams said. "Schism is not something we hope for. But again, at the end of the day, we hold in the highest regard the worth of the people in our community."
At the session, 864 delegates from across the globe will vote for one of four plans designed by a diverse commission of Methodists to address the church's disagreements on homosexuality:
- The One Church Plan permits, but doesn't require, clergy to perform same-sex weddings and removes prohibitions against ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals, church reports say. Reports add that the plan already received support of the church's Council of Bishops.
- The Modified Traditional Plan maintains the church's prohibitions against self-avowed practicing gay clergy and same-gender weddings. It would mandate penalties for violations and permit churches to leave with their properties.
- A Connectional Conference Plan would reorganize the church, replacing current geographical jurisdictions with three connectional conferences based on perspectives on sexuality.
- The Simple Plan removes the clause that states homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and eliminates all prohibitions that limit the role of homosexuals in the church.
The Rev. Susan Leonard, senior pastor of Bethel UMC downtown, said she prepares to support the One Church Plan because it gives local churches flexibility to make policies depending on their local context. A church in rural South Carolina, for example, could install different policies around same-sex weddings than a church in California.
Leonard views the plan as a way to keep the church together, which remains her ultimate hope.
“I think that’s part of the way a global church is able to stay connected," she said. "I am prayerful that the wind of the Holy Spirit will be at work and unite us. My first hope and prayer is the the United Methodist Church finds a way to keep coming to the table of the grace together.”
Leonard said she could not speak on behalf of Bethel's 700-plus members regarding her church's position on homosexuality. But she echoed the sentiment that a vote will not change her church's focus on the love of Jesus.
"No matter what the vote is, this is who we will be," Leonard said. "Local churches can still be agents of love. Love cannot be prescribed or eliminated with a vote.”