When Pastor Ross Johnson preached from the Book of Exodus last Sunday, he wasn’t just delivering a standard sermon. He was risking his livelihood.
It was a risk he was willing to take, as he spoke at “Queer Resistance,” a service he and other LGBTQ clergy organized in defiance of the United Methodist Church’s recent vote to reinforce its ban on gay clergy and same-sex marriage.
“Oh, Lord, hear me when I cry out in anger — angry that others may believe that I, a queer minister, am anathema,” Johnson told about 200 congregants seated in a circle inside Old West Church near the base of Beacon Hill. “Oh, Lord, hear me when I cry out in fear, fearing the loss of my career and my first parish, the loss of my church, of all that I hold dear, and all that we know. Oh, Lord, hear me when I scream that I cannot take it anymore.”
Such anguish has been pouring forth from churches in the Boston area since the United Methodist Church’s General Conference voted last month to reaffirm its 1972 policy that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Delegates to the conference also voted to more strictly enforce the penalties for clergy who perform same-sex marriages or who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” First-time offenders would be subjected to a year’s suspension without pay. Second offenses would result in expulsion from the ministry.
The decision could split the United Methodist Church, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, between its conservative and liberal factions, which have long been at odds over the role of sexuality in the church.
Methodist leaders in New England have indicated they will not stop ordaining LGBTQ clergy or performing same-sex marriages in response to the General Conference vote. And many say they are devastated by the policy and are questioning whether they should remain in the church or part ways and form their own independent churches.
“It’s very hard to be in a relationship with people who say you are ‘incompatible with Scripture,’ ” said Sara Garrard, the 30-year-old pastor of Old West Church, who identifies as queer and comes from a long line of Methodist pastors in the Deep South. “What they’re saying in those words is, you are less than, you are not worthy, you are not compatible with the teachings of Christ. You are subhuman, and you are not good enough.”
The vote was propelled by a coalition of evangelical Methodists from the United States who joined with delegates from Africa and Asia, where homosexuality is frequently condemned or criminalized.
Together, they marshaled enough support to pass the policy, called the Traditional Plan, by a narrow 54-vote margin, over a competing plan backed by Methodist bishops that would have allowed local and regional church leaders to decide whether to ordain or marry LGBTQ members.
The Rev. Thomas A. Lambrecht, who helped draft the Traditional Plan and submitted it to the General Conference, said it was important to stop bishops who had been routinely defying church teaching by allowing the ordination of gay clergy and the sanctioning of same-sex marriages.
“It’s important to maintain our church’s stance in [agreement] with Scripture,” said Lambrecht, the vice president and general manager of Good News, an evangelical Methodist organization in Texas. “The Bible consistently defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and for us to accept the practice of homosexuality as something that’s blessed by God would be contrary to Scripture.”
He said for those churches that disagree with the policy, the Traditional Plan creates an exit pathway for them to leave the United Methodist Church and form their own independent congregations.
Lambrecht said such a schism could benefit both sides.
“In fact, for a number of years we’ve seen it’s not possible for us to continue living together in one church body,” Lambrecht said. “Our theological perspectives are so opposite that living together just creates conflict that distracts us from the mission of our church.”
The Rev. We Hyun Chang, superintendent of the Metro Boston Hope District, which represents 47 churches in the area, agreed the denomination may be at a breaking point, divided between growing congregations in Africa and Asia and churches in the United States, where gay marriage is widely accepted.
“I don’t know how we can hold together those two growing Methodist movements, which happen to be in contradiction,” Chang said. “I think there are going to be some forms of new expression, one way or the other. The question is how we get there.”
Progressive Methodist leaders in the United States worry the policy will make it harder for the church to survive and grow when its members are still fighting over gay rights four years after the Supreme Court established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
As with other mainline Protestant denominations, the United Methodist Church has been shrinking as a share of the US population, falling from 5.1 percent in 2007 to 3.6 percent, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. The church is also older, whiter, and less racially diverse than many other denominations, Pew said.
Although the role of gender and sexuality in ordination and marriage remain deeply divisive issues in other mainline churches, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and others have embraced same-sex marriage in recent years.
That trend could make it all the more difficult for the United Methodist Church to broaden its membership, said the Rev. Dr. Jay Williams, pastor of Union Church in Boston’s South End, who attended the General Conference in St. Louis and said he found the policy particularly painful as a gay black man.
“We live in a world where people are not knocking down the doors of the church,” Williams said. “And as the country goes more theologically left, and increasingly not religious at all, to go in the direction of exclusion is really a death knell.”
Sudarshana Devadhar, bishop of the New England Conference of Methodists, wrote in a letter to church members earlier this month that he and his Cabinet were “heartbroken” by the vote and remain committed “to lead a church that does not discriminate in membership, ordination, or service in ministry based upon any person’s gender or sexual identity.”
That full embrace of LGBTQ people was echoed in the songs and sermons shared during last Sunday’s “Queer Resistance” service.
“We resist,” the congregants sang, voices rising inside the 213-year-old brick church. “We refuse to let hatred in. We rise up. We won’t back down. We’re in this till the end.”