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NORTH LIBERTY — For the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in Iowa and the United States, unity is no longer a given.
As factions of conservative and progressive Methodists splinter into new denominations of their own, the Bishop’s Appointive Cabinet of the Iowa Conference has directed churches and pastors to “follow their conscience” — even if that includes allowing the same-sex marriages or gay clergy forbidden by the church’s governing Book of Discipline.
“The way we’ve been doing things isn’t necessarily working,” said the Rev. Ron Carlson, dean of the Appointive Cabinet and a superintendent of Iowa’s Camp Clear Lake District in northwestern Iowa.
That vision, Leading Now and Into the Future, took effect Jan. 1 and permits about 750 Iowa churches with about 150,000 members to host same-sex weddings. Methodist ministers are now permitted to marry gay couples, if they choose, and gay clergy can serve without fear of facing church charges that would jeopardize their livelihoods.
But as the leaders of the church’s Iowa Conference explain their new directive in a tour of churches around the state, both conservative and progressive wings of the church are grappling with the vision, struck as a compromise amid what many see as an imminent split.
For some in the theologically diverse church, the directive goes too far to resolve the schism; for others, it doesn’t go far enough.
"If the United Methodist Church doesn’t allow for this to be, there’ll be a different iteration of Methodism that comes out that will go forward,“ Carlson said.
The Iowa Conference will no longer process complaints about same-sex weddings or gay pastors who are not celibate.
The change comes after the church’s 2019 General Conference, the highest legislative body of the United Methodist Church, doubled down on discriminatory language in the Book of Discipline, devastating LGBTQ members, clergy and allies within the church who had hoped to turn a corner.
With repeated delays to holding the next General Conference, now tentatively scheduled for August, leaders are not hopeful the issue will be revisited again any time soon.
“Missionally, we can’t stay stuck like this. We can say we’re going to wait. We’ve been waiting a very long time,” said the Rev. Bill Poland, director of connectional ministries for the Iowa Conference. “We don’t see (theological diversity) as a problem to be overcome. It’s a strength that we can embrace.”
But Methodists on both sides of the aisle remain skeptical of that embrace.
“I think that even if the General Conference holds its stance, I don’t think that Iowa’s going to change. This is a response to who we are as Iowans.”
Not far enough
Progressives and LGBTQ allies in the church have long been fighting for the abolition of Book of Discipline language added in the 1970s: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
After the General Conference committed to keeping that language in 2019, Iowa Bishop Laurie Haller outlined a vision for the church in 2032 that prioritizes relationships over theological convictions.
"In 2032, human sexuality will be a non-issue because long before then, we will have recovered our heart — that we are all connected with one another in love,“ Haller said in a September 2019 address.
The Bishop’s Appointive Cabinet started forming its new directive two years ago with that vision in mind, focusing on a policy that would allow members of different convictions on same-sex marriage to do as they see fit. But without a mandate for full inclusivity, some say a directive doesn’t go far enough.
“By not going full inclusion, it’s basically sanctioned harm, trauma and violence against LGBTQ members that are in churches that don’t want to be inclusive to them,” said Maggie Welchhance, who has been attending First United Methodist Church in North Liberty for more than 10 years.
“And the Iowa Conference is saying, ‘That’s OK. We’re OK with that.’ ”
In addition to attending services with her wife and twin boys, Welchhance, 36, leads a ministry for LGBTQ people at the church.
Her efforts have brought queer visibility and support to the church, including a rare Progress Pride flag displayed at the front of the sanctuary alongside the Christian and American flag. Some members objected, and the flags were moved to the fellowship hall after the Appointive Cabinet visited the church Feb. 8.
Simply highlighting nearby LGBTQ-friendly churches for those who seek them isn’t enough, Welchhance said, particularly for children or those in rural areas. The need for inclusion is everywhere, not just in select locations, she said.
“That’s great if, down the street, I have another church I can go to,” she said. “But if I live in rural Iowa, chances are I don’t have a ton of Methodist churches around me.”
Too little, too late
For many LGBTQ Methodists, the change has come too little, too late.
Some of those at the Appointive Cabinet’s stop in North Liberty spoke of clergy who committed suicide decades ago over their sexuality. Other gay clergy said, after remaining celibate for decades to serve their calling, they were willing to wait a couple more years to see progress through.
“We have real members … who have grown up and been loved in our churches who are feeling less than in our congregation right now,” said Poland of the Iowa Conference. “In processing those complaints (about same-sex marriages and gay clergy,) I don’t see Jesus. … In the processing of those complaints, we are causing harm.”
For Welchhance, the conversation is focusing on the wrong things.
“What I heard a lot of was how to preserve unity,” she told The Gazette afterward. “Why is unity sacrosanct? Why are we fighting for unity when it’s crushing people within our churches?”
With two new denominations already splintering, the United Methodist Church is already split, she said, and a compromise without full inclusivity is too little, too late.
The Liberation Methodist Connexion will explicitly embrace LGBTQ people and other marginalized populations.
The Rev. Sean McRoberts, a former United Methodist pastor in Iowa City and current member of Liberation Methodist Connexion, said the Appointive Cabinet’s directive further erases LGBTQ people from the conversation.
The directive, they said, does not explicitly mention the people it pertains to — such as the LGBTQ community, same-sex couples, or gay clergy.
Carlson, the dean of the Appointive Cabinet, told The Gazette the cabinet’s aversion to terms like those was not a deliberate choice.
“There’s nothing theological here,” McRoberts added. “It would be fine as an insurance company, but there’s nothing theological about it.”
Too far, too quickly
Some Iowa Methodist pastors, though, feel the Appointive Cabinet’s directive is too sudden and could be a slippery slope to other new interpretations of issues, such as gambling, where the church has consensus.
“It’s hard right now to say that we can pin trust onto the cabinet when we’re not sure what’s on or off limits,” said the Rev. Nick Grove, pastor of the Sharon United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids.
Despite the lack of explicit authority to make a change, the Appointive Cabinet says the change is not outside the Methodist tradition, citing times when church founder John Wesley defied the Church of England to allow lay people and women to preach from the pulpit.
If a church wants to host a same-sex wedding but the pastor does not want to officiate, another pastor may be matched to the couple. If a pastor wants to marry a same-sex couple but does not have the support of his or her church, they may marry the couple at another church or venue.
As before, the new directive will only permit ministers to marry two consenting adults. It does not endorse polyamory.
Though the new direction requires no changes for those who do not wish to recognize same-sex marriages, some have concerns they’ll be left in the dust in the new vision.
“How will a loving conservative not be made an outsider?” asked the Rev. Brody Tubaugh, pastor of the Shueyville United Methodist Church.
Pastors like Grove and Tubaugh also had concerns about the timing of the directive’s release. The Appointive Cabinet said the new directive, released in early December, was timed to be released before Advent so as not to disturb the holiday season.
Here to stay
Despite the desire to act now while the church awaits the next General Conference, the Appointive Cabinet told The Gazette the new directive is a permanent change, not a stopgap.
“There’s beginning to be a vision for what the Iowa United Methodist Church is going to look like now,” said the Rev. Dr. Lanette Plambeck, assistant to the bishop and director of clergy and leadership excellence for the Iowa Conference.
“I think that even if the General Conference holds its stance, I don’t think that Iowa’s going to change,” she said. “This is a response to who we are as Iowans.”
Added Carlson: "Instead of deciding who’s out, it’s a matter of who’s in."
With a trend toward regionalism in the U.S. church at the top of the agenda for the next General Conference, Plambeck anticipates that Iowa’s regional neighbors will maintain full LGBTQ inclusivity and anti-racism as top priorities.
“Our intent isn’t that there be winners and losers,” Plambeck said. “Our intention is that the ministry of Jesus is going to happen, and we’ll be able to do ministry with the people that God has called us to do ministry with.”
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