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Area Methodists upset by denomination’s resistance to LGBTQ rights

  • Delegate Rebecca Girrell from the New England Conference speaks during a debate of church policies on sexuality on Feb. 25, 2019, at the Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, held in St. Louis. (United Methodist News Service - Paul Jeffrey)

  • New England delegates participate in a meeting of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church held in St. Louis on Feb. 24, 2019. (New England Conference of The United Methodist Church - Beth DiCocco)



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, March 02, 2019

LEBANON — Methodist ministers in the Upper Valley say they’re disappointed and saddened by the denomination’s decision last week to strengthen its opposition to same-sex marriage and continue barring LGBTQ pastors from serving.

News of the vote to adopt the so-called “traditional plan” by the church’s general conference in St. Louis on Tuesday was especially difficult for area pastors who are openly members of the LGBTQ community.

“We were always thought to be a movement, a religious organization, a church of people who believe that our commitment to service and justice in the world is stronger than the differences we have, even when they’re strongly held differences,” said the Rev. Sean Delmore, pastor of the White River Junction United Methodist Church.

Delmore identifies as queer — the “Q” in LGBTQ — which is used by some in the community whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual, according to GLAAD, an organization that advocates against LGBTQ discrimination in media.

Delmore said the core belief of Christianity is God’s call for people to enter full and authentic relationships. When delegates in St. Louis rejected a proposal that would have allowed every pastor to determine whether to perform same-sex marriage and ordain LGBTQ clergy, it was personally painful, he said.

“That can really strike at the core. It strikes at the core of my faith, my sense of self, and it really challenges foundational parts of who we are and our relationship with God,” said Delmore, who traveled to St. Louis last week with his spouse, the Rev. Becca Girrell, pastor of the Lebanon United Methodist Church.

Girrell, who also identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community and was a reserve delegate at the conference, said her biggest reaction was a sense of confusion and befuddlement.

Methodists have long held differing beliefs on same-sex marriage, she said, but that diversity of beliefs and backgrounds was always seen as a strength of the church, which has practitioners across the globe.

“That (diversity) actually allows our particular church and movement to be more relevant to more people in more places,” Girrell said in a phone interview. “And so it’s disappointing and sad to see that some folks don’t see it as a strength and rather see it as a liability. I think it’s an incredible gift.”

While Delmore and Girrell are dismayed by the church’s decision, they aren’t yet calling for a split from the church. That’s partially because Methodist churches throughout New England are already welcoming of LGBTQ congregants and ministers.

“In New England, we’ve really come to an agreement as a region about inclusion of all people, including LGBTQIA people,” Delmore said, using the acronym that includes intersex and asexual people.

“But we have colleagues in places where they don’t have that agreement. And so for others, this is really isolating or scary,” he added. “People are questioning, where is a safe place for them to go to church on Sunday? Where will they be welcomed?”

The New England Conference, a regional gathering of church leaders, voted in 2016 to pass an “act of non-conformity” against church teachings it considers discriminatory, such as the ban on same-sex marriage.

And the region’s board of ministry declines to consider sexual orientation or gender identity when it recommends candidates for ministry.

“My hope is we do not split,” the Rev. Cheryl Meachen, who ministers to Methodist congregations in Sunapee and Grantham, said in a phone interview.

Meachen said she is disappointed in the denomination’s opposition to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy, but that he is heartened that some Methodists will keep pushing for change.

Those include members of the Grantham Methodist Church, which is working to become a “reconciling congregation” that openly welcomes people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The Lebanon United Methodist Church became a reconciling congregation in 2007.

“I am really hopeful that the people who feel strong about this issue and are committed to helping all of us learn together about what God’s will for us in this world (will prevail),” Meachen said.

Still, some churches and congregants will likely decide to leave over the general conference decision, said Randall Balmer, the John Phillips Professor at Dartmouth College.

“And it would have happened either way the vote went,” Balmer said.

The United Methodist Church is one of the few mainline Protestant denominations that hasn’t seen a split over same-sex marriage and the ordination of female and LGBTQ clergy, he said. Presbyterians have fractured so many times that historians sometimes call the denomination the “Split Ps,” he added.

And the Episcopal Church saw a large split after Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, was elected in 2003 as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.

“It’s a very sad situation but part of that sadness is that it’s a split over something that’s so negligible,” said Balmer, an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.

The Bible teaches people to welcome society’s strangers and care for the least fortunate, he said.

“I would really love to see a denomination engage with those issues rather than fighting over something as trivial (as sexual orientation),” Balmer said.

When Delmore talks to congregants in White River Junction on Sunday, he hopes to bring a continued message of love and devotion to the community, not added anxiety and worry about the church’s future.

“There are people in the congregation who hold different beliefs and have different kind of reactions,” he said. “And yet our love for one another and our sense of community and purpose is much stronger than that.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.