Chatham’s Methodists face decision over LGBTQ plan

Posted 1/17/20

MONCURE — Pastor Danny Berrier sits in a multipurpose room at Chatham United Methodist Church, which itself sits on the outskirts of Pittsboro, across from a small lake.

Papers in front of him, …

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Chatham’s Methodists face decision over LGBTQ plan

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MONCURE — Pastor Danny Berrier sits in a multipurpose room at Chatham United Methodist Church, which itself sits on the outskirts of Pittsboro, across from a small lake.

Papers in front of him, he tries to put into words just how much the United Methodist Church has meant to him.

“It hurts me personally only because I love the United Methodist Church,” Berrier said. “It’s been my life. To see it not be the same, meaning that people are going to leave, is hurtful for me as an individual. And I expect that will impact my congregation.”

What Berrier is speaking to is news that the world’s third-largest Protestant group could potentially enter the summer with a plan in place for churches across the world to leave the denomination over questions of the place of LGBTQ individuals within congregational life. Berrier, a lifelong Methodist, said the discussion has been going on for a long time — and he’s seen the pain it’s caused.

“Hurt and injury is what’s being felt by a lot of people,” he said.

An official decision on this separation won’t happen until May. The new proposal, announced earlier this month, would offer churches who hold to a so-called “traditional” view of the role of members of the LGBTQ (an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning) community in the denomination — namely, whether or not they would be allowed to serve as clergy and whether or not churches and pastors would be allowed to perform same-sex marriages — a way out.

It could fundamentally alter the UMC’s makeup, and that would reach right into Chatham County.

The root of the separation

In a post on the website UM News, which covers the UMC, the breadth of the issue is put succinctly: “For the past 47 years, The United Methodist Church has struggled unsuccessfully to achieve consensus and compliance with regard to matters of human sexuality.”

Berrier, who’s been at Chatham UMC for about four years, said that conflict came to a head once again at last year’s Special Session of the General Conference, a gathering of Methodist leaders from all over the world. The denomination as currently constituted has more than 12 million members. But while the 2019 event was designed to try to find a way forward on the issue of LGBTQ persons in church life, the opposite happened.

Instead of a compromise plan between traditionalists, who oppose LGBTQ clergy and marriages in UMC churches, and progressives, who favor both, the global UMC approved The Traditional Plan by a 53 percent vote. The plan continued the UMC’s prior teaching, which fell in line with traditionalists’ perspective.

The vote led to many in the UMC, particularly in the U.S., decrying the decision and considering plans to leave the denomination.

“People get upset on both sides of this question about how we should treat our LGBTQ friends,” Berrier said. “In that regard, some are obviously hurt that we’re not doing more and some are hurt that we’re doing what we are. But it’s been very difficult.”

The traditional teaching of many Protestant denominations has been that homosexuality and homosexual acts are sins, acts against the Bible’s teaching. But within the last 20 years in particular, some groups have changed their stance, particularly the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ.

A new way forward

The plan currently before Methodists — scheduled to be voted on along with many other ideas in May at the next General Conference session — is called the “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.”

Deliberated on and designed by eight church leaders from the traditionalist, centrist and progressive wings of the UMC last year, the Protocol would allow for traditional churches to leave the denomination and retain use of their assets, including buildings and church grounds. A new “traditionalist Methodist denomination” would receive $25 million from the UMC over the next four years. Various branches and groups within the denomination would hold their own votes on whether or not to separate from the UMC over the coming years, with individual churches having by Dec. 31, 2024, to make a decision.

Additionally, any church disciplinary actions restricting same-sex weddings of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” were “held in abeyance” starting with the new year “as one expression of reconciliation and grace through separation.”

The Rev. Brent Levy, pastor of The Local Church in Pittsboro, said he hasn’t told his congregation “a whole lot” about the proposal, but noted that some of the public discussion hasn’t been entirely accurate about what the plan means.

“While you may hear the word ‘split’ thrown about, that seems to be a bit of an exaggeration,” Levy said. “I’ve said that yes, it will bring changes, but I do not believe it will change much, if anything, on the ground for us. God still has work for us to do.”

Berrier said he’s had a couple of conversations with attendees of Chatham UMC and Cedar Grove UMC in Pittsboro, which he also pastors.

Denominations and church groups have struggled for years with differences of opinion on doctrinal issues. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention has faced controversy in recent years over the topic of female clergy, a common debate among Protestant Christians. Because the issue of sexuality is deeply rooted in religious texts for many, Berrier said, and interpretations differ, it becomes a difficult conversation.

“I’ve seen the whole span of the people who are on both sides of this issue, and I think that’s why the hurt is so deep, because people feel passionately,” he said. “They’ve learned to read scripture and they see what they see as far as what God’s opened to them in scripture. I think that’s the fundamental problem.”

A ‘step forward’

With the vote on the Protocol coming in May, churches and Methodists have some time still to digest the proposal and make their decisions. But in the meantime, churches and individuals are wrestling with how to respond.

North Carolina is home to more than 511,000 Methodists split between the N.C. Conference and the Western N.C. Conference. Levy, one of those Methodists and a graduate of Duke Divinity School, said he is sorrowful over the separation, but finds the proposal as a “step forward” for the denomination.

“There has been much harm done as we have wrestled with questions of human sexuality,” he said, “and as we move forward, I pray for healing, mending and reconciliation in all the ways they’re needed, and that we might continue to be about the work of grace, belonging and love in our corner of the world.”

Something both Berrier and Levy said is that they believe Methodists are still loving and welcoming people, even though they may disagree on the issue of human sexuality. The Protocol reflects that — while it states that the UMC and its members “have fundamental differences regarding their understanding and interpretation of Scripture, theology and practice,” there is agreement among the Protocol’s authors that the denomination “is committed to recognizing, respecting and protecting the rights and personal dignity of every person, including people of all races, sexual orientations, genders, national origins, ages, and social classes.“

Hope Morgan Ward, the bishop and leader of the North Carolina Conference of the UMC, said in a statement after the Protocol’s release that it was “offered to the church in humility and hope” and that she wanted North Carolina Methodists to “share strong hope for ministry configurations of our shared life that offer space for all to worship, grow in grace and serve with faithfulness and joy.”

What about Chatham?

Each church in Chatham County would have the ability to make its own decision. Since the plan is not yet formalized, announcements have not been made, and two of the Chatham UMC pastors the News + Record contacted did not respond to inquiries.

Berrier said he leans “centrist,” but that the decisions at his churches would be left up to his congregants. Levy said he believes The Local Church appreciates and would stay faithful to the Methodist tradition of love and grace. But they both said this is a difficult time for the denomination they love. They hope the people of Chatham see a group of people that love and welcome.

Berrier referenced the mantra “do no harm,” one of church founder John Wesley’s “three simple rules” — along with “do good” and “attend upon all the ordinances of God,” such as attending church and prayer. He said he believes all the Methodist churches in Chatham — whether traditionalist, progressive or centrist — would seek to continue that approach.

“I think if someone is looking for a church home that says we’re going to love our neighbor, we’re going to reach out and try to help people in the community, I think the United Methodist Church and all of them in the county would be speaking to that approach, whether they’re traditional or centrist or progressive,” he said. “I still see that heart of mission at the bottom line of who we are the United Methodist Church.”

He added that it was probably a good thing that the denomination wouldn’t “have this in front of us constantly.”

Levy said he hoped Chatham residents would see that the UMC is more than disagreement about human sexuality.

“At its core, ours is a tradition rooted in God’s abundant grace and steadfast love for all people,” he said. “We are a people who, for hundreds of years, have sought to put our faith in action by seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our hands, feet, hearts and voices. By God’s grace, that work will continue.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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