Months after the United Methodist Church tightened restrictions around LGBTQ rights, a group of centrist and progressive Methodists are making a push to make the church more inclusive.
UMC Next, a nationwide coalition, is working to eliminate the church's prohibitions against self-avowed practicing gay clergy and same-gender weddings.
In South Carolina, the group's work recently included sponsoring a slate of clergy and lay delegates to represent the state at the denomination's General Conference in 2020.
All eight clergy members elected to represent the state at next year's global summit were backed by UMC Next South Carolina based on the clergy members' support of LGBTQ inclusion, said UMC Next co-leader Stanton Adams.
"It’s a massive success for us," Adams said.
The group of delegates also include several African American and female clergy, leading church leaders to applaud its diversity and call the election "historic."
"For that to be true in South Carolina, that’s remarkable," Adams said. "I can't say definitely, but I will be stunned if you can find a time where it was more diverse and representative than that.”
Momentum is picking up across the country. Methodist conferences in Georgia, Florida, Texas, Alabama and several other states have elected delegates to advocate for a more inclusive church at next year's global gathering.
This sends a message to churches oversees, said the Rev. Susan Leonard, pastor of Bethel UMC downtown.
The recent 438-384 vote that took place in St. Louis to approve the Traditional Plan, reinforcing the UMC Book of Discipline that “does not condone the practice of homosexuality," was skewed by churches in other parts of the world with more traditionalist views. But that could change as American congregations elect more delegates committed to LGBTQ inclusion, Leonard said.
“The pendulum has swung," said Leonard, also elected a delegate to the 2020 meeting. “It’s an optimistic day for people who want an inclusive church."
Not all are on board with the shift. Michael Cheatham, a lay delegate to the 2020 conference, said the action at the February meeting affirmed biblical teaching regarding marriage being between a man and woman.
He added the UMC Next's slate was not diverse but a singular-minded group of delegates "committed to changing our biblical understanding of human sexuality without compromise."
Several congregations have already left the denomination. Pointing to the schism, Cheatham, a member of Faith UMC in Greer, said the denomination's goal should be to separate amicably and maintain shared ministries.
Others hope the church can stay together. In the Charleston area, Two Rivers Church, a LGBTQ-affirming Methodist congregation, has grown in membership since February and hasn't considered breaking from the denomination.
“We haven’t even discussed that as an option," said Adams, who's a member of the church. "We are committed to working toward inclusion in our existing structure.”
The South Carolina Conference hasn't had any churches request to leave the denomination, a conference spokesperson said.
Bethel's congregation includes members on both sides of the debate, Leonard said. The pastor, who considers herself a centrist, said her goal has been to invite members to take the journey together.
"My desire is that no one leaves," she said.