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Iowa members struggle with United Methodist Church ban on LGBTQ clergy, same-sex marriage

Oct 29, 2019 at 8:30 am
    Rev. Anna Blaedel at the Wesley Center, 120 N. Dubuque St., in Iowa City, Iowa on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

    As a gay pastor in the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Anna Blaedel was devastated when church leaders voted to strengthen a ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage in February.

    The former University of Iowa’s Wesley Center director has been charged in the United Methodist Church — for the third time in as many years — with being a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual.” A hearing committee voted Aug. 8 to certify the charge and send it to trial within the denomination. A trial date had not been set as of mid-September.

    Blaedel hopes to avoid trial — a process that could cost the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church upward of $100,000 — and is trying to settle.

    Blaedel, who oversees the Wesley Center’s Tuesday Table, would like financial compensation for the loss of their full-time job as director, although that’s negotiable. What isn’t negotiable is a public acknowledgment from the conference of the harm these complaints have caused.

    “We want a commitment to no further complaints or trials against me or any of our LGBTQIA” — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual or allied — “kin for being clergy or for officiating at weddings,” Blaedel said.

    Blaedel‘s dilemma is part of a growing debate in many Iowa denominations. Those discussions are about inclusion and diversity, and how congregations and their governing bodies wish to codify them.

    Point of Contention

    Throughout the process of Blaedel’s ordination, the pastor said church leaders were aware they were gay, including the bishop who ordained them. Because Blaedel is openly gay, they — the pronoun Blaedel prefers — assumed the Iowa Conference would refuse to ordain them in the first place. Despite knowing the Methodist church had a ban on same-sex clergy, Blaedel continued to pursue ordination because of the calling they felt from God.

    “I made the decision early on not to allow unjust rules to stop me from doing what I thought was a divine call,” Blaedel said. “I thought my responsibility was to pursue that call faithfully.”

    Following the vote to strengthen the ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage, however, Blaedel isn’t sure if they can stay, regardless of the trial outcome.

    When Blaedel joined the United Methodist Church, Blaedel saw a church that ordained women long before other denominations did and had a “deep commitment to reproductive justice.” Blaedel also noted a denomination that had more racial diversity than other progressive Protestant traditions.

    The decision in February changes that.

    “I see our denomination moving away from that,” Blaedel said. “I think we are losing our roots and losing our soul ... a denomination that cares more about rules and institutional preservation over the gospel.”

    While the issue of homosexuality has been “simmering” in the background of many disagreements since the United Methodist Church was formed in 1968, when the Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren Church united, Sarah Lancaster, professor of theology at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, said the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states in 2015 probably put more pressure on the church’s stance.

    General Conference, a meeting of the denomination’s legislative body, in 2016, was “a particularly contentious meeting” regarding issues of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy, Lancaster said.

    In response, a commission was formed to examine possible revisions to the Book of Discipline, the law and doctrine of the United Methodist Church, concerning human sexuality. The commission, called the Commission on the Way Forward, was charged with exploring options to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.

    In February 2019, the United Methodist Church held a special session General Conference in St. Louis, to vote on plans proposed by the commission.

    The first plan was called the One Church Plan, which would have allowed individual churches and regional annual conferences to decide whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members.

    The second plan, the Traditional Plan — it passed by only 53 percent — states “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

    “I am just grieved that the Traditional Plan was passed,” Lancaster said. “I know in my congregation there have been people who have left. They have decided they cannot be United Methodist any longer. I suspect that is happening all over the U.S.”

    With the Traditionalist Plan comes punitive measures for ordained ministers who don’t adhere to the Book of Discipline.

    For a first offense, such as performing a same-sex marriage, the conference can withhold a pastor’s salary for a year. A second offense can result in the conference withdrawing credentials.

    Chargeable offenses are not just for clergy, Lancaster said. Anyone in the conference can bring someone up on charges for violating the Book of Discipline.

    LGBTQIA people are not banned by the United Methodist Church. The Book of Discipline states that anyone regardless of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition, can attend worship at a United Methodist Church, be baptized, become members and participate in its programs.

    The Rev. Mike Morgan, pastor at Marion First United Methodist Church, said that while it is “very painful” to see the United Methodist Church so divided, the decision to strengthen the ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage aligns with the Bible.

    “I’m part of the United Methodist Church, and as a United Methodist pastor, I think it’s my responsibility to stand with the doctrine of the church and, therefore, I do,” Morgan said.

    The vote of 53 percent to 47 percent, however, shows that the church is split.

    “Nobody won,” Morgan said.

    Morgan said that his congregation, too, is divided.

    “We are not of one mind except in the fact we believe Jesus is Lord, and we want to grow his kingdom,” Morgan said.

    A Time of Discernment

    Before the General Conference’s decision in February, leaders at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids began hosting “listening circles” for members of the church to share their pain, fears and convictions.

    The Rev. Sherrie Ilg, lead pastor at St. Paul’s, said the listening circles are a time for church members to talk about their response to the conference’s decision and whether they should push back.

    “We’re in a time of discernment,” she said.

    Ilg said that while she can’t speak for every member of her church, she would say her congregation is affirming of LGBTQ people. She is encouraging members to do what the Book of Discipline says to do.

    “We are to do theological reflection on any matter of life,” she said. “We look at what the scriptures say, how we are informed by our scriptures, and how we are informed by the gift of reason, the gift of experience and tradition.”

    Bill Daylong, a retired pastor and now a member of St. Paul’s, was ordained in the United Methodist Church in the 1990s. Shortly after he was ordained and began serving as a pastor in Hinton in northwest Iowa, his son came home from college and told his family he was gay. At the time, Daylong didn’t realize the United Methodist Church banned same-sex marriage. It was a colleague who informed him of the church’s stance on the issue.

    “I felt like, ‘Oh, man, what do I do now?’ ” Daylong recalled.

    He spoke to his district superintendent, the presiding elder for his region, about his son, who said the church’s understanding of homosexuality probably would evolve with time.

    That was over 20 years ago, and Daylong remains “brokenhearted” on his church’s stance on same-sex marriage.

    “I believe we’re wrong, and I believe it already has cost us a lot of credibility as a church,” Daylong said. “I think society has evolved ahead of the church in this respect.”

    A Career On The Line

    Daylong has been willing to put his career on the line over this issue.

    In 2012, he signed a statement of affirmation in the presence of his district superintendent that said if a same-sex couple asked Daylong to marry them, he would do so.

    It was when Daylong was pastoring in Jefferson, in west-central Iowa, that he had the opportunity to prove his affirmation of same-sex marriage. A couple asked if Daylong would marry them. He said yes. Later, the couple’s family approached Daylong and asked if the Book of Discipline forbade him from performing a same-sex marriage.

    “We do not want to put you in jeopardy of losing your credentials,” the family said to him.

    “I appreciate your concern for me, but I have mixed feelings about this,” Daylong replied. “Yes, the Book of Discipline does forbid me from performing same-sex marriage, but if you ask me, ‘Will you do this?’ I will probably say yes.”

    In the end, the couple found someone else to perform the ceremony, but Daylong attended the wedding and said a prayer of blessing over the couple. Despite Daylong disagreeing with the United Methodist Church about same-sex marriage, he stays because of the vow he took when he agreed to serve as a pastor in the denomination, he said.

    “Change is difficult,” Daylong said. “It’s not the first time the church has been behind the curve. What is that saying that 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America?

    “Legislation never does change hearts,” Daylong said. “The work of changing hearts is something that’s much more patient and more reliant on God’s grace and a thing called forgiveness.”

    Affirming Spaces

    Jacob Simpson, vice chairman for the Wesley Center board of directors, grew up in the Lutheran Church in Clinton.

    As a student at the University of Iowa, he began attending the Wesley Center and found a safe space — lead by Blaedel — to have deep, meaningful conversations about faith and identity, he said.

    Simpson, who is gay, said he isn’t a Methodist but is part of the Methodist community through the Wesley Center. He does not currently have a place to call his church home.

    Simpson is saddened by the church’s decision, saying that the Wesley Center had a big impact as a religious center that affirmed his LGBTQ identity.

    “There are students who are craving some kind of religious or spiritual space,” Simpson said, adding that the Wesley Center is “inviting and welcoming” and he would hate for students to avoid checking it out because of the decision made at General Conference.

    “I know a lot of people are wondering how they fit into the United Methodist Church. ... I encourage folks who are looking for a space that supports LGBTQ people — while upholding some of the best religious or spiritual aspects of the church — to check out the Wesley Center,” he said.

    But the matter of banning LGBTQIA clergy and same-sex marriage is not entirely settled, Lancaster said. There are groups working on different proposals to present at General Conference in May 2020. General Conference is held every four years.

    A plan proposed by a bishop in Michigan and a bishop in Texas would allow people to join the “traditional Methodist Church, the Open Methodist Church and the Progressive Methodist Church.” The Traditional Methodist Church would abide by the Traditional Plan. The Open Methodist Church and Progressive Methodist Church would eliminate restrictions on queer clergy and same-sex marriage.

    Another plan, called the UMCNext Proposal, would provide a way to churches to separate from the conference and create a new United Methodist Church for those who remain.

    A Leave of Absence

    Some members of the clergy, like the Rev. Sean McRoberts, former pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Iowa City, have chosen to take a leave of absence because, McRoberts said, of his church’s “insistence on discrimination of LGBTQ people.”

    McRoberts believes this to be “one of the greatest issues of our time” in the Christian community. He said he told the bishop he would return to ministry in the United Methodist Church when the church “repents of its discrimination.” He said he is prepared to not return if that never happens.

    Officials with the United Methodist Church declined to comment for this article.

    But the Rev. Harlan Gillespie, assistant to the resident bishop of Iowa, did say the conference honors any United Methodist Church officials reasons to take a leave of absence.

    The bishop’s office does not have a statement or position on the decision made in February, Gillespie said.

    “It’s important for us to let the process work itself out with our delegates going to General Conference and all the groups working on this,” Gillespie said.

    Gillespie admitted the process does work “very slowly” and has been a “very painful process.”

    “Many of us, myself included, expected a different outcome of the 2019 special session,” Gillespie said. “Our church is very divided over this. It’s caused a lot of anxiety.”

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