Two of Tulsa’s largest and most influential churches found themselves Saturday on opposite sides of a deep divide over the issue of human sexuality that is threatening to split the United Methodist Church.
Asbury United Methodist Church hosted a global meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the key organization fighting to retain traditional values in the church. More than a thousand people attended the daylong gathering that was simulcast to some 86 sites around the world.
Meanwhile, Boston Avenue United Methodist Church downtown held an all-day prayer vigil and a 1 p.m. service Saturday in opposition to the Wesleyan Covenant Association meeting.
Both sides agreed there is a very real chance America’s second largest Protestant denomination will split within a year.
The Rev. Tom Harrison, Asbury senior minister, said Asbury did not organize the event but was “honored to host it.”
“We were inspired by some of the finest preachers in United Methodism,” he said. “We know these are challenging times within our denomination and our culture but we are confident in the leadership the Wesleyan Covenant Association is providing to keep us grounded in scripture and in the historic Christian faith.”
The Rev. David Wiggs, senior minister at Boston Avenue, said he organized the downtown service in light of the Asbury event because “I felt like it was important to have a different voice who also represents United Methodists saying that not all United Methodists hold the same view of how we’re going to respond to LGBTQ people.”
While many mainline Protestant denominations in recent decades have fully embraced people with diverse sexual orientations in leadership roles, and most conservative evangelical churches have not, the global United Methodist Church has continued to struggle with the issue.
At a special General Conference Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis, delegates voted by a narrow margin to approve the so-called “Traditional Plan,” which essentially left unchanged the church’s position on sexuality, as set forth in the Book of Discipline, the church’s law.
The Book of Discipline states: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
The Traditional Plan, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2020, also provides penalties for clergy who perform same-sex wedding ceremonies, including a one-year suspension without pay for the first offense, Wiggs said.
Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, said Saturday before he spoke that the struggle in the Methodist Church goes beyond sexuality.
“It’s the presenting issue of a much deeper conflict,” he said. “You have competing world views, competing ways of understanding scripture, competing ways of understanding who Jesus is, and what he’s calling us as his disciples to be.
“This is not unique to our time. In various ways, this has existed for generations. In our generation, the issue is being presented around issues of sexuality.”
Behind those differences, he said, is a different view of scripture.
He said traditionalists view scripture as primary and authoritative.
“Our understanding of who we are, and how we are to relate to God, is shaped and molded by scripture. … Those with a different understanding tend to emphasize their experience.”
Boyette said the Methodist Church is badly polarized, with little middle ground between the two sides, and he does not see a path to resolution.
“It seems increasingly likely that a separation will occur at the 2020 General Conference in May,” he said.
Among the purposes of the Wesleyan Covenant Association are to give a voice to people with the traditional viewpoint, and to prepare for the contingency of a church split, he said.
Speaking at Asbury Saturday morning, the Rev. William J. Abraham, professor of Wesley Studies at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, said, “We’re at a crucial turning point in history of the western church, and the Methodist tradition. We now face a clear choice … a church built on sex and gender, on rebellion against the policy and practices of the church … or a church built on the rock of divine revelation of scripture.”
Wiggs said he opposes the Traditional Plan for several reasons.
“I think it is punitive, and contrary to the spirit of covenant, and the Spirit of Christ with which we try to treat each other within the Christian community,” he said.
He said he was not only concerned about the plan’s effect on people with diverse sexual orientations, but on church leaders who do not abide by its requirements. He said the plan’s penalties violate the Methodist tradition of due process, and strip pastors of their long-held authority to determine whose wedding ceremony they will conduct.
Alternative plans prepared
He said many United Methodists are dissatisfied with the Traditional Plan, and alternative proposals are being developed, which will be discussed at the next General Conference. United Methodist policy can only be changed at a General Conference.
One of those plans divides the church into three parts, conservative, moderate and progressive.
“That plan essentially dissolves the denomination as we know it, even though they’re not calling it dissolution,” Wiggs said.
“There’s a pretty good chance the United Methodist Church will continue to exist,” he said, but the denomination will make it easier for dissenting churches to leave.
He said the denomination has suffered turbulence over the sexual controversy, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, but he remains friends with fellow pastors who disagree with him.
“I think we’ve done pretty well in working together and respecting each other,” he said.
The speaker at the 1 p.m. service at Boston Avenue was the Rev. Spencer Brown, curate of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Broken Arrow.
Brown said he was raised and confirmed at Boston Avenue, and received much of his spiritual foundation there. In high school he realized he was gay.
“I kept it to myself, and it ate away at my heart,” he said.
Later, he felt called to the ministry, but was unable to pursue it in the United Methodist Church because of church policy. He went on to become an Episcopal priest.
In the liturgy before Brown spoke, the Rev. Jeannie Himes, senior pastor of St. Stephen’s Church, Norman, led the congregation in a profession of faith that included, “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, … and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of different cultures, ages, races, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities and ethnicities?”