Methodists in Virginia divided over homosexuality
At Timberlake United Methodist Church in Lynchburg, worshippers recently heard strong opinions from their pastor, the Reverend Lynne Alley-Grant. She's preached about her desire for the Methodist Church to change its stance on the LGBT community.
“Quite candidly, we are in the loving business, not the judging business,” she said. “The church is a place supposedly of love and acceptance and yet we are struggling with those we perceive to be so different.”
It is a historic time for the United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in Virginia.
For the next ten days, more than 800 delegates from Virginia, the country, and all over the world will vote on official positions for the church during its General Conference. That includes a possible change to how the church views homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The debate has Methodists anything but united.
Church rules and regulations come from its Book of Discipline, which currently states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. It also forbids pastors from officiating same-sex marriages or coming out as gay.
Mark Ogren is Director of Church Excellence for the Virginia United Methodist Center. Last July, a petition he wrote to remove prohibitive language on homosexuality barely passed, 989-868 by church leaders in the commonwealth during the annual Virginia United Methodist Conference. It now will be one of hundreds of other petitions debated during the church's General Conference in Oregon.
Ogren, a delegate at General Conference, said he felt he must try to change the church's views because of gay Methodists he knows.
“And to see their faithful commitment to God and see their willingness and desire,” he said. “My reason for writing the petition was because as it's written now our Book of Discipline requires pastors to discriminate.”
The petitions regarding homosexuality will be combined into three general proposals; change the language of the Book of Discipline, leave it be, or allow individual churches or state conferences to make up their own regulations.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Virginia Methodists is a collection of churches and clergy who voted against the petition. Its president is Reverend Tom Thomas, pastor for Bethany United Methodist Church in Forest and Oakland United Methodist Church in Goode.
“I don't think it's a shortage of compassion,” he said. “But there must be restraint. We do not condone the practice of homosexuality.”
“People… interpret scripture differently and that's where we are divided in the United Methodist Church,” Ogren said. “But as I read it you can't argue that it's incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The ardent views by both sides has the church at an impasse that could lead to a fractured flock.
“We think that this is not progress, but regress,” said Thomas. “It's not really about freedom but enslavement, not unity but division.”
“I'm cautiously hopeful because we are really, really stuck,” said Alley-Grant. “We are really, really struggling in the United Methodist Church.”
Votes could come as early as this weekend, Ogren said.