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Reeling from contentious LGBT vote, some Methodists pledge to fight while others mull leaving

Protesters chant during the United Methodist Church's meeting in St. Louis on Feb. 26. (Sid Hastings/AP)

Dumbarton United Methodist Church is the oldest United Methodist congregation in Washington, D.C., dating almost 200 years before the United Methodist denomination was created — even before the United States was created.

On Wednesday, when the church’s minister, the Rev. Mary Kay Totty, traveled back to Washington from a groundbreaking meeting in St. Louis, where the denomination decided to uphold its opposition to same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy, she said she thought that centuries-old history might be at a breaking point.

“To think of not being Methodist,” she said, then stopped, unable to complete the sentence. Dumbarton voted to affirm gay worshipers more than 30 years ago, and the church has performed 20 same-sex marriages since 2010, breaking the rules of the denomination every time. Now such actions will be met with much harsher penalties.

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“I will not comply with unjust rules,” Totty said. “At this point, all possibilities are on the table for consideration, whether that’s affiliating with another denomination, starting a new Methodist denomination, or remaining in this denomination and continuing to work for justice.”

The meeting in St. Louis, which concluded Tuesday evening with 53 percent of the clergy and lay leaders from around the world voting in favor of the “traditional plan” to keep banning same-sex marriages and noncelibate gay clergy, was meant to settle this question that has divided Methodists for years.

Instead, LGBT advocates and scores of American pastors left the meeting vowing that the fight was far from finished. Many pledged to continue disobeying the church’s rules, or to attempt to vote on the question again at the denomination’s meeting in 2020. And some spoke tentatively of splitting from the United Methodist Church altogether.

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"We’ve had the schism. We just don’t know what’s next,” said Andrew Ponder Williams, a candidate for ministry in the church who is in a same-sex marriage and who previously chaired a denominational committee on LGBT issues. “Yesterday ended us as we’ve been.”

To avert such a break, many bishops of the church, and many LGBT advocates, had backed the “one church plan,” which would have allowed every pastor to decide individually whether to perform same-sex marriages and ordain gay clergy. On the floor of the stadium where the former St. Louis Rams once played, the delegates voted down that plan.

Instead, the plan approved by the delegates hardens the denomination’s approach to rule-breakers. It closes loopholes that conservatives believed had allowed some LGBT people to be ordained as clergy and some bishops to avoid enforcing the rules. It enacts new across-the-board standards for punishing ministers who perform same-sex weddings: a minimum one-year suspension without pay for the first wedding, and permanent removal from ministry for the second.

At the same time, the delegates voted in a plan to allow churches to leave the denomination more smoothly over the question of sexuality, opening a window for local churches to leave by the end of 2023 and to retain their property, including church buildings. The question of building ownership when a church leaves has led to lawsuits and bitter infighting in other denominations, a prospect Methodists wanted to avoid.

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With more than 6 million members, the United Methodist Church is the United States’ third-largest faith group. While most evangelical denominations condemn same-sex relationships as sinful, Methodists stand almost alone among mainline denominations in not performing same-sex marriages, in contrast to the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ and more.

Most of those denominations saw conservative churches leave the body when they opted for same-sex marriage, often provoking fights over ownership of church property. Now, the United Methodist Church faces the opposite prospect: saying no to same-sex marriage, and seeing liberal churches leave.

Unlike the other denominations, which are largely American, less than 60 percent of United Methodist churches are in the United States. Much of the rest of the voting power rests with African churches, which tend to be far more conservative on questions of sexuality.

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In the United States as well, Methodists are more conservative than other mainline Protestants. Pew Research Center found in 2014 that 54 percent lean Republican and 35 percent lean Democrat, a significantly more Republican tilt than other mainline denominations. Fifteen percent of Methodists describe themselves as “liberal,” compared with 22 percent of mainline Presbyterians, 24 percent of mainline Lutherans and 29 percent of Episcopalians.

Opinions on sexuality are deeply split among American Methodists, though trending toward acceptance — Pew found that 51 percent said homosexuality should be accepted in 2007, and 60 percent said so in 2014.

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The church is geographically distributed across the United States, from coastal cities to rural regions. And the church is aging — almost one-third of members are older than 65 and another third are 50 to 64, while 9 percent of members are 18 to 29, Pew found in 2014.

The demographic trends point away from ever approving same-sex marriage in the church, argued John Lomperis, a Methodist who works for the conservative group Institute on Religion and Democracy. “This clearly was a historic turning point,” he said. “If they couldn’t win now, how are they going to win in the future, when there will be fewer delegates from more liberal areas of the States and more delegates from Africa?”

While Methodist churches in Africa are growing, membership in the United States has been shrinking. The United Methodist Church, the third-largest U.S. faith group after Catholics and Southern Baptists, represents 3.6 percent of Americans by the most recent count, down from 5.1 percent in 2007, according to Pew.

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Methodist leaders who fought for unity a day ago were mulling some sort of division after the meeting ended. The Rev. James Howell, an author who leads a 5,300-member church in Charlotte with a diversity of political views in its pews, was one of the leaders pushing the one-church plan that failed. “Periodically, people would say, ‘Let’s talk about a new denomination. Let’s talk about where to go.’ We the leaders really pushed back. Our goal is unity,” he said. On Wednesday, he was reconsidering. “At this point, there’s a lot of feeling from centrists and from moderates, much less progressives, that the kind of far-right conservatives, the Russians, the Africans — they don’t want to be with us. They want to be rid of us. That grieves me, but I think it’s just a reality.”

As he headed back to Charlotte, he sent a mass text to all his church members, and watched his phone blow up with their reactions — many heartbroken, others pleased. “We’re going to have dissolutions and departures, and those institutions [like hospitals and schools] are going to break down,” he said, noting that one-church proponents had prepared “no plan” in advance to start a new denomination.

Adam Hamilton, who leads the nation’s largest United Methodist church, in Kansas, was one of the most high-profile proponents of the failed one-church plan. Some members of his congregation have said they plan to leave, but most churchgoers care about their individual pastor and community, not the denomination, he said.

“I don’t want to leave,” he said. “But I don’t want to stay long-term if we are going to continue to treat gays and lesbians as second-class in our churches.” He plans to gather Methodist leaders from across the country at his church to discuss options in May.

The Rev. Donna Claycomb Sokol, who leads Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in the District, said her phone started ringing early in the morning as congregants at her LGBT-welcoming church voiced their hurt at the decision. She said she would like to stay in the denomination, and she predicts that few churches will leave. Her members, however, have already told her they will be hesitant to donate to the church, knowing some of their money will go to the denomination.

“I would not want to be a denominational official right now trying to gauge how much money’s not going to come in,” she said. “It was almost flabbergasting for people to not see the financial implications of a decision like this.”

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And for gay clergy, and those who ordain gay clergy and marry gay believers, the question is the opposite: not just whether they will leave the church but whether the church will force them to leave it.

The Rev. Angela Flanagan, a bisexual pastor at Silver Spring United Methodist Church, said she won’t leave on her own accord. “We’re severely disappointed and hurt, but we remain undeterred,” she said. “Part of our role in the UMC is to hold it to account.”

Ponder Williams, the married gay man pursuing ordination to the clergy, struggled to put the feeling into words. “We love our church so much, and we believe in its purpose so much, that we are willing to be leaders and participants and active members in an institution in which more than half of its members — more than half! — believe that we should be in jail,” he said. “There’s no Hallmark card for that.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.