An Everett Methodist church chose this month to go against its own denomination and publicly accept gays and lesbians into its congregation.
Members of St. Paul United Methodist church voted this month to become “open and affirming,” a term used by other Methodist churches that have taken the same step.
“I think (gays and lesbians) are entitled to equal rights,” said Patricia Rudd, chairwoman of the church committee that’s handling the change. “That’s what Jesus is all about.”
Edmonds Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation, also voted within the past month to welcome gays and lesbians. Both churches are taking action on an issue that has split denominations throughout the nation. Churches that vote to publicly support gays and lesbians, which includes a growing number of churches in Snohomish County, often refer to themselves as “open and affirming,” “reconciling” or “more light.”
A greater sin?
There is always talk of the sin of homosexuality, said Glenn Nestlerode, pastor of Edmonds Christian Church. The sin that is more concrete and real is the one of homophobia, he said.
“Gays and lesbians are beaten up and made fun of,” he said. “That is sinful and harmful.”
The United Methodist Church does not condone homosexuality, but the Everett congregation is unlikely to face discipline, said Alan Ocompo, a superintendent with the denomination’s Puget Sound district.
“There is an understanding that there are congregations that are more progressive,” Ocompo said. “They feel this is part of their ministry.”
The Episcopal Church is in the midst of upheaval over the issue that threatens to decimate the once-powerful denomination. An entire diocese in California seceded from the denomination in an effort to oppose the widening role of gays and lesbians in 2007, and church leaders recently deposed about 60 clergy who aligned with the leader of that secession. *
Most major Protestant denominations have considered accepting gays and lesbians as clergy, but those initiatives have failed, said Jeffrey Siker, a Loyola Marymount University professor who has written widely on the topic.
The United Church of Christ is the only Protestant denomination to accept gay clergy, he said.
Acting on their own
Now, many individual churches are choosing to publicly accept gays and lesbians, both as members and as clergy, Siker said. The goal of those churches is usually to sway their denominations to follow their lead. Denominational leaders sometimes discipline such churches, and sometimes they let them slide, Siker said.
“The churches that are becoming openly inclusive don’t want to leave their denominations,” he said. “They’re willing to stand in some tension with official denominational policy in order to try and bring about some change.”
Often, that tension overwhelms the congregation, too.
Hundreds of people left Edmonds United Methodist Church in 2003 when leaders of that congregation supported a gay music director.
“It’s heresy,” said Cathy Bihler, one of the congregants who left the church. “For (the pastor) to have that position, which is so contrary to the church’s teaching, he has to disagree with some of our very basic beliefs, and he’s in violation of his vows.”
Bihler, who now attends a United Methodist congregation in Woodinville and is active in the denomination at a national level, said that although many Methodist churches in the West no longer prohibit sexually active gay and lesbian members, the denomination remains firm in its traditional teachings.
“In the Western U.S., most church leaders don’t agree with those teachings, and they’re trying to change those teachings, but they have not been successful,” she said. “They’re just doing what they want to do.”
As more churches accept gays and lesbians, church members who are opposed will become less likely to speak out publicly, Siker said.
“They’re not disappearing, but they’re less willing to state their opposition publicly,” he said. “They’re riding against the tide of public opinion, and they don’t want to get beat up.”
Those people are likely to quietly leave the church, Siker said.
It’s not clear how the trend will play out long-term. Experts on church growth say evangelical churches are growing in the Western U.S., but liberal and progressive congregations are dying out. University of Washington professor James Wellman Jr. found in recent research that liberal churches tend to have fewer young people, and often wind up without strong teaching on any subject out of fear that it will be considered exclusive.
Some members of Edmonds Christian Church left when a lesbian couple began attending, Nestlerode said.
The church has undergone a recent transformation, said Nestlerode, who has been at the helm of the church for 15 years. The congregation wanted to focus on what’s happening outside the church as well as events within it, he said. During that process, some of the congregation’s 70-some members discovered that they wanted to welcome everybody into their congregation.
Members of St. Paul United Methodist Church began discussing the issue months ago, the Rev. Mike Smith said. They talked about what becoming an open and affirming congregation might mean in terms of their Methodist faith. The ultimate vote was overwhelmingly in favor of opening the church doors to all people, he said.
“These people ought to have a place where they are not condemned and put down,” Smith said.
Churches that turn away gays and lesbians, Smith said, are akin to churches that would turn away people because of their clothing or hair color.
“That’s nonsense,” Smith said. “Gay people around the world in Christianity almost always encounter that. You are fine as long as you change something fundamental about you.”
The United Methodist Church has a number of gay clergy who remain celibate in order to remain in their positions, Smith said.
Gay and lesbian people can also be clergy in the Disciples of Christ denomination, and a number of people in the Seattle area are, Nestlerode said. Such decisions are made regionally, he said. Gay clergy are common in some regions, he said, but other regions are unlikely to accept them.
“We understand that Jesus welcomed outsiders and outcasts of all kinds. That’s the behavior we want to emulate,” Nestlerode said.
When it comes to the Bible and what it says about homosexuality, Smith says that if people’s reading of the scripture hurts others, then they need to go and read it again.
“If it damages human beings, belittles them, makes them feel less than human, less than whole,” Smith said, “you are, brother, reading it wrong.”
Christina Harper: 425-339-3491 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Correction, June 29, 2009: A California Episcopal diocese seceded from its denomination in 2007 in opposition to the widening role of gays and lesbians. This article originally stated incorrectly the position of the California Episcopal diocese.