Faith

‘I’m mourning the church’: KC Methodists may secede over anti-gay vote

Church of the Resurrection pastor Adam Hamilton: ‘We love you. We are your church.’

Church of the Resurrection pastor Adam Hamilton's message to his church following a vote at the general conference to tighten the United Methodist Church's rules against same-sex marriage.
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Church of the Resurrection pastor Adam Hamilton's message to his church following a vote at the general conference to tighten the United Methodist Church's rules against same-sex marriage.

The most powerful Methodist pastors in the Kansas City area — and the nation — say they are prepared to secede from the second largest Protestant denomination in the world if their church does not quickly renounce its anti-LGBT stance.

At a worldwide conference in St. Louis on Tuesday, the United Methodist Church voted to uphold its ban on same-sex marriage and the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy. The move also laid a new framework for punishment protocol, including financial penalties and excommunication, for those who violate the policy.

The vote is at once a resounding victory for the conservative faction of the church and a troubling peek into the future for centrists and progressives hoping to make the church more inclusive.

“This decision will have to change,” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, who attended the conference. Resurrection, with four campuses and 22,000 members, is the largest Methodist congregation in the nation.

Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, senior pastor at St. James United Methodist Church, the largest predominantly black church in Kansas City, called Tuesday’s vote “disappointing.”

“At some point I imagine we will begin to seriously talk about amicable separation,” said Cleaver, who, like Hamilton, attended the conference as a voting delegate.

With 12 million members worldwide, the church is the second largest Protestant denomination behind Southern Baptists.

After three days of heated debate in St. Louis, the nearly 800 delegates ratified the so-called Traditional Plan with 53 percent of the vote.

The opposing measure, the One Church Plan, aimed to remove language form church doctrine calling homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching” and to leave decisions on LGBT inclusion up to regional governing bodies.

The Traditional Plan’s victory is the latest example of the international community’s growing role in the United Methodist Church. More than 4 million of its members live outside of the United States. Eastern Europe, the Philippines and African countries, for example, take a staunchly conservative Christian view on LGBT issues, and many make homosexuality a crime.

About a third of the U.S. delegates, many of them conservative evangelicals, joined them in their vote for the Traditional Plan.

“We Africans are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics,” the Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia said in a speech during the conference, according to The Associated Press. “We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal church elite in the U.S.”

Both Hamilton and Mark Holland, a Methodist pastor and the former mayor of Kansas City, Kan., were among a select number of Methodist officials who had helped formulate the One Church Plan.

Holland called the Traditional Plan “mean-spirited” and said Tuesday’s vote was not only a blow to LGBT members but to the church as a whole.

“People see the hypocrites of the church and it’s a turn-off. The discrimination against gay and lesbian people needs to end, and the church needs to be leading in doing that,” Holland said.

It was Holland who, while at a Methodist conference in Portland, Ore., in 2016, made a motion asking bishops to address the growing dissonance surrounding issues of sexuality, a proposal that eventually led to the One Church Plan.

“There are a lot of grieving people right now who feel this is wrong, and I’m one of them,” Holland said.

Cheri Jones, a lesbian and Church of the Resurrection member, says the conference’s decision alienates the LGBT community.

“When I heard the news, I thought ‘Here we go again,’” Jones said. “Why are we doing this? Why is this even relevant?”

Jones moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2007, and misses Hamilton and his church.

“It’s been tough to find a church that won’t go against me,” she said. “I haven’t been able to find churches that don’t put you down in some way. I’m not saying they don’t exist, but it’s been hard.”

Life was particularly hard for Jones 14 years ago, she says, when she came out to her husband, who was a church leader at Resurrection. “He went and spoke to Adam and tried to convince him to be against me,” Jones says. “But Adam told him to let me be myself.”

“For Adam to validate something at the time, when no one was really validating, to have someone in such a great position speak out, just to make that type of statement, was huge in my life,” Jones said.

Grace Woods, a 20-year-old student at the University of Kansas with plans to become ordained, says she was heartbroken by Tuesday’s decision. “I’m mourning the loss of what the Methodist church was.”

Woods, who also attended the St. Louis conference, fears what the decision may mean for young worshippers like herself. “Generation Z, we’re not exclusively heterosexual, we are everywhere on the spectrum,” she said.

“The goal of the whole conference was to promote unity for the church, but that isn’t at all what’s going to happen with the adoption of the Traditional Plan. The church that voted on passing that plan is not the church of the future.”

The division echoes similar schisms in other mainline Christian churches, most notably Presbyterians and Episcopalians, split over conservative and more liberal theology in general and gay rights in particular.

Cleaver says his church’s members are split on which side of the issue to support, though the congregation does have LGBT+ members.

Moving forward, many worshippers and clergy say they expect the Judicial Council of the Methodist Church, a Supreme Court-like governing body with the power of veto, to overturn Tuesday’s vote. It’s a decision many believe will mark the beginning of the end for the United Methodist Church as it currently exists.

Hamilton lists three possible outcomes by the next general conference in 2020 in Minneapolis: the more conservative faction of the church secedes; the more progressive arm — likely joined by church centrists — secedes; or both sides find common ground via a proposal like the One Church Plan.

He planned to discuss the next steps for his church at two gatherings this weekend: 10 a.m. Saturday at Resurrection Downtown, 1601 Grand Blvd., and 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Resurrection Leawood, 13720 Roe Ave. The Sunday night conversation will be livestreamed on the church website, cor.org.

“This traditional church policy essentially pushes out centrists and progressives and a generation of young clergy,” Hamilton said.

“I want the UMC to be a church for my children and my grandchildren, but at this rate, I don’t think that’s taking place.”

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Aaron Randle is the Star’s “Divided City” enterprise reporter, tasked with exploring the cultural intersections that shape — and divide — Kansas City and Kansas Citians.

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