Shelby Ruch-Teegarden, center, of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary joins other protestors during the United Methodist Church's special session of the general conference in St. Louis, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. America's second-largest Protestant denomination faces a likely fracture as delegates at the crucial meeting move to strengthen bans on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy. (Sid Hastings)
Reverend Hannah Adair Bonner is the director of Frontera Wesley, a campus ministry at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. She is a graduate of Duke Divinity School, a queer clergywoman and an Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church.

Methodists discern what we believe and form our doctrine by talking to one another — through what we call holy conference. At regional meetings and especially at the General Conference, an assembly of elected voting delegates from all over the world, we open with prayer and worship, then go through lengthy legislative processes. These conferences are often intense, with long days of conversation followed by late nights of the same. But Methodists, of whom there are more than 7.6 million in the United States, believe we can best hear the will of God when we are willing to listen to one another.

Yet I’ve never attended one like this year’s special session in St. Louis. After days of painful debate, the traditionalist coalitions won a vote that has divided our house: By a 53 percent majority, the church strengthened its ban on queer marriage and clergy — and it toughened punishments for those who defy that doctrine. It encouraged those who would disobey to seek out another church home.

When we arrived in St. Louis last weekend, many of the queer clergy and laity and our allies were optimistic, despite our denomination’s disputes about the scripture’s teachings about sexuality. For years, tension had been building as progressive churches became more inclusive. Our Book of Discipline, the central text laying out church law and procedure, allows such cultural, context-sensitive adaptations only in areas outside the United States.

But the prospects for the One Church Plan, which had an endorsement from the Council of Bishops, as well as progressive and conservative support, seemed good. Compared with the Simple Plan (which would have removed all exclusionary language on homosexuality from the Book of Discipline ) and the Traditional Plan (which affirms prohibitions against same-sex marriage and gay ordination, with harsher consequences for disobedience), it was a moderate path. It would leave decisions about these issues up to individual churches and regional yearly conferences. It would keep us together while allowing for diversity.

The atmosphere was strained at the Dome, where the delegates gathered to hear speeches and cast votes. My rainbow stole elicited eye-rolls from some of the self-described traditionalists. On the floor, some delegates said the progressives were acting hateful and mean by accusing them of being bigoted and unloving — a claim of victimhood that felt surreal to me as I listened to them rail against homosexuality. At one point, a woman making a speech quoted from Luke: “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” The implication for queer clergy like myself, who might lead people “astray,” was clear.

But there were also instances of soaring love. In the most powerful moment of the General Conference, a gay college student named J.J. Warren, who plans to become a pastor, spoke about sharing his faith at his secular campus: “We have brought people to Jesus, because they say they have not heard this message before. They didn’t know God could love them because their churches said God didn’t.” His address brought the room to applause and tears, compelling even the bishops, who were not supposed to show support one way or another, to break protocol by rising to their feet. Yet when the initial legislative council votes were taken Monday, on the second day of voting, the traditionalists revealed themselves to be unaffected. They had come to make their will known, not to listen and be swayed. Only the Traditional Plan moved forward into the final day, with 461 votes in favor and 359 against.

When Tuesday came around, my friends and I held out hope that enough delegates might reconsider the moderate path — that they might be moved by the testimony they were hearing and touched by the love of God. But as it became clear that the body would pass the Traditional Plan, numbness set in. For days on end, on the floor and over meal breaks, we’d been making ourselves vulnerable to people who told us to our faces that we were unfaithful to the scriptures and a danger to the church — people who denied that we were worthy to preach in the pulpit or be wed at the altar. We strove to help them understand our love and to be loving to them, despite the pain they caused us.

The votes showed we didn’t reach them, or enough of them.

In a sense, this is nothing new for me: I’ve been fighting for my call to ordination my whole life. Though the United Methodist Church voted to ordain women in 1956, my conservative home congregation in Pennsylvania ignored that ruling. In my conservative church, school and home, I was constantly told that it was wrong for women to preach. (Paradoxically, such communities also accuse queer clergy of violating the Book of Discipline.) I spent my adolescence reading the Bible cover to cover, wrestling with its teachings, until I finally realized that it did not condemn me for wanting to answer that call. When I was 28, I took my vows.

Earlier this year, I had to repeat that process of acceptance as I came to terms with my queerness. The Book of Discipline permits heterosexual clergy to marry but prohibits queer clergy from being in relationships, offering lifelong celibacy as the only option. Yet as I studied the scriptures, this time as a pastor, I understood that it was possible for God, far from condemning my sexuality, to call me into a loving relationship. That’s the irony: While traditionalists claim that progressives reject scripture, many of us have spent uncountable hours poring over the Bible’s every line. We simply read it differently.

After the final vote came in Tuesday evening, I walked around the stadium seats, checking in on the young adults I’d met over a decade of ministry and speaking at youth events. They were shattered, eyes wide and teary. I told them that this was not over; that we are in this together; that we have a future; that they are beloved. At their own international assembly, in 2018, they made a statement of unity, declaring that despite the diversity of their cultures and traditions, they wanted to stay together: They voted to support the One Church Plan. The median age of United Methodists in the United States is 57. The delegates should have listened to these young people and their convictions, to the voices leading us into our future — if they had, we would still be united now.

What happens next is uncertain. The most conservative traditionalists, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, had been expected to leave the denomination, freeing them from our bishops and severing any connection to those of us who are queer; the last legislation they passed was an exit plan. On Thursday, however, they made the surprising announcement that they would stay and steer the church. Leaders from the Western Jurisdiction, on the other hand, have declared their commitment to inclusivity, regardless of the cost: They reaffirmed their support of the full inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings, and queer pastors like myself as we serve and lead. And next year, we will hold another General Conference, where new legislation may be introduced to shift our direction again.

What I do know is that when I returned to Tucson, I was welcomed and embraced. I put on my collar and served Communion to all those who sought it. I began the work of comforting students and others in my ministry at the University of Arizona. Many of them are already acquainted with struggle — they’re undocumented, or putting themselves through school, or enduring the effects of racism and discrimination against black and indigenous people in this country — and they know how to be brave. We will move forward. We will grieve, but we will not let the events of this past week shake us in our resolve to continue God’s work.

This chapter, of begging people to love us, is over. Now we will lean into God, the one we know loves us unconditionally.

As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen

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