Their campaign for LGBTQ inclusion stymied, these SC Methodists set sights on 2020

Progressive Methodists in South Carolina seeking a more inclusive church were dealt a blow Wednesday in Greenville when proposals open to LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage never made it to debate.

As congregants from around the state gathered for a five-day annual meeting of the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, the S.C. conference bishop ruled three petitions aimed at urging church leadership to lift the bans on same-sex marriage and openly gay clergy out of order.

“These petitions were written in good compassion (and) faithful ministry, and there’s sadness among us that we did not get to discuss these petitions,” said Rev. John Culp, a retired pastor from Columbia, addressing Bishop L. Jonathan Holston during the conference after Holston ruled the petition out of order.

“But, still it hurts, because we all have lesbian and homosexual friends, and we hate to see the church closed to dialogue,” Culp said. “My church, my Christ, loves everyone.”

Now, those church members who support the change are pinning their hopes on the persuasive powers of some of their members. This week, S.C. Methodists elected delegates to attend the UMC’s 2020 General Conference, a global summit of Methodists. Some of those S.C. delegates were elected from a loose coalition of progressive and centrist church members, according to conference members.

“That to me speaks to the movement occurring in South Carolina more than the petition would,” said Stanton Adams, a member of Two Rivers Church in Charleston and organizer of UMC Next in South Carolina.

The movement seeks to eliminate church restrictions and penalties for LGBTQ persons and create a Church that is “welcoming, affirming, and inclusive of all God’s children.”

Ten of 16 delegates elected to the 2020 General Conference were from a slate of progressive and moderate clergy backed by UMC Next, including all eight clergy members.

“I feel really good about the work that’s coming forward,” Adams said. “We have leaders in the state of South Carolina prepared to ... bring people together — other clergy and laity — around the same table to say, ‘How do we create a more inclusive Church?’”

Holston opened the annual conference on Sunday “hoping to set a tone of conciliation, rather than rancor,” in anticipated debate over decisions about human sexuality made during the 2019 General Conference, according to a press release.

“It is my hope, as we go forth back in our districts and our churches, we do not stop having the conversations that are important for us to be the church we need to be,” Holston said Wednesday in response to Culp’s comments. “We as a church need to be in conversation with each other. We need to find a civil and most direct way to speak with each other, and not at each other.”

A rift in the church

Some S.C. Methodists were in support of maintaining the bans on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.

Michael Cheatham, a member of Faith UMC who serves as a lay pastor at Zoar UMC in Greer, said “the church is open to gays and homosexuals” already. “All gays and the entire LGBTQIA community is welcome to worship in our churches at any time,” Cheatham said.

The bans are “scriptural,” he added, noting, “The church motto is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, not have the world transform the church.”

In February, the rule-making body of the United Methodist Church affirmed and strengthened the denomination’s bans on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

The vote has caused divisions in and among U.S. Methodist churches, with congregations on either side of the issue ready to cut ties, according to news reports.

No South Carolina church, though, has formally requested to leave the denomination since the Church’s lawmaking body approved procedures for local churches to disaffiliate from the denomination, according to the S.C. Conference.

Supporters of ending the prohibition on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy say the bans are threatening the longevity of the church, alienating LGBTQ congregants and clergy when the Church, facing historic declines in membership in the United States, should be pushing to be more inclusive.

United Methodists lost more than 16,000 members in the past decade, according to statewide church statistics, following a trend among major Protestant denominations in the state.

Current Methodist doctrine holds that all people have sacred worth. But it also says the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and prohibits “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being “certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

The annual gathering of some 2,000 clergy and lay delegates ends Thursday.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.