When the Jardine family joined St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch in 2018, they were grateful to have a place where their oldest son would be accepted. Not long before, the then …
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After conducting a same-sex vow renewal in May 2018, Rev. Ben Hensley had a complaint filed against him while he was an associate pastor at a church in Texas. The pastor was accused of breaking a rule in the denomination's Book of Discipline by celebrating a homosexual union, he said.
Individuals in the Methodist church can file a complaint to allege a leader has acted against the Book of Discipline. The book outlines church law and chargeable offenses, and it includes prohibitions against performing same-sex marriages or ordaining LGBTQ leaders.
The complaint against Hensley was dismissed by an investigations committee in November 2018, but the pastor remembers facing constant reminders of the situation those six months, with paperwork showing up in the mail or concerned family members asking about the complaint's status.
"It was always something in the background, so I was always kind of stressing out,” said Hensley, now lead pastor at Lakewood UMC.
When a church member files a complaint against a leader, the complaint is received by the leader's regional bishop, who then conducts what is known as the supervisory response process. The bishop meets with relevant parties, with the possibility of the complaint being settled by those parties or, eventually, going to church trial.
If a clergyperson is found in violation of the Book of Discipline, the individual may lose his or her ordination. Other chargeable offenses include sexual misconduct, crime and abuse.
In Colorado's regional conference, the Mountain Sky Conference, Bishop Karen Oliveto has said she will not conduct the supervisory process for complaints relating to LGBTQ marriages or ordinations.
“You're receiving complaints not for your actions in ministry, but simply for who you are. I know the harm that causes,” said Oliveto, who became the UMC's first openly lesbian bishop when she was elected in 2016.
Hensley supports this stance. Though he didn't lose his ordination, he looks back on the complaint process as a time of unnecessary emotional distress.
“The whole thing was completely absurd, but that doesn't mean I wasn't sweating," Hensley said. "I was anxious.”
And, he believes, “it is exponentially worse” for members of the LGBTQ community who receive complaints: “Your entire humanity gets called into question.”
— Casey Van Divier
Elected delegates from UMC churches around the world, half clergy and half lay people, make decisions about the denomination’s legislation during a General Conference, which normally meets every four years. During many of these meetings, delegates have voted on rules around LGBTQ people and their role in the church.
1972: The Social Principles, which are not considered church law but are considered to still be instructive, are adopted, including a statement on homosexuality.
“We declare our acceptance of homosexuals as persons of sacred worth … though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
1984: After multiple failed attempts to change the language of The Social Principles to make it more inclusive, additional language is added restricting ordination of LGBTQ people.
“Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.”
1996: A petition is approved that prohibits the church from hosting or conducting same-sex marriages. This prohibition was added to The Social Principles.
2000: While the incompatibility clause in the Social Principals is upheld, it is softened and new language is added.
“We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.”
2004: The church’s official rules are amended, creating charges against clergy people who are openly gay and those who officiate same-sex marriages. These can now result in a church trial, which could strip the accused clergyperson of his or her ordination.
2008: A resolution is approved opposing homophobia.
“(The church opposes) all forms of violence or discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice or sexual orientation.”
2019: In a 438-384 vote, the Traditional Plan is approved, reinforcing the teaching that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. The plan also strengthens the church’s penalties for those who violate this policy.
January 2020: The Protocol is introduced, proposing a split of the church based on the compatibility of LGBTQ people and the church.
“The United Methodist Church and its members are at an impasse, the Church’s witness and mission is being impeded and the Church itself as well as its members have been injured.”
May 2020: Delegates from the United Methodist Church will vote on whether to adopt the Protocol, which would effectively split the church in two.
At a global conference this May in Minneapolis, hundreds of United Methodist Church delegates will vote whether to approve legislation based on the Protocol. Should the legislation pass, the Protocol requires:
• Those forming a new denomination will register by May 15, 2021.
• Regional conferences, such as the Mountain Sky Conference, which includes Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana, will choose which branch to affiliate with by July 1, 2021.
• Leadership can choose to align with either branch by July 1, 2022.
• Local churches can choose to split from their conference until Dec. 31, 2024.
• $25 million will be allocated to the traditionalist Methodist denomination and $2 million will be set aside for any other denominations that are formed.
• More than 12 million congregants make up the United Methodist Church worldwide.
• 6.8 million congregants are in the United States, with the remaining in Africa, Asia and Europe.
• The UMC has reached more than 136 countries.
When the Jardine family joined St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch in 2018, they were grateful to have a place where their oldest son would be accepted.
Not long before, the then 14-year-old had come out as gay, and the Parker family had immediately left their previous faith because they felt there wasn’t a place for them in the conservative congregation.
After a few Sundays at St. Andrew, “my son said to me, 'I’m so glad I still get to have religion in my life,’” Ryan Jardine said. “That for me was such a touching moment.”
The Jardine family is pleased with their experience at the Highlands Ranch place of worship. But that’s only because the church actively breaks the Methodist denomination’s rules by performing same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ people.
“I feel comfortable attending St. Andrew because I feel like they have the autonomy and desire to be inclusive,” Jardine said. “St. Andrew has gone out of their way with him to make sure he feels accepted and loved.”
But the United Methodist Church has been deeply divided for decades over how to include the LGBTQ community in its faith. And, in May, the issue may finally split the church as members vote on the Protocol, a proposal that would divide the church into two denominations — one for those who formally endorse same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, and another for those who do not.
Two churches acting as one
The United Methodist Church, or UMC, works a lot like modern democracies, with a system of delegates, conferences and legislation. When members want to make a change within the denomination, they must follow strict procedures.
The church first addressed homosexuality in the 1970s, when the UMC adopted a stance against condoning same-sex marriage. Since then, there have been multiple additions to that ruling, such as completely outlawing same-sex marriages and ordinations of clergy who identify as LGBTQ. Several attempts by delegates from progressive churches to remove language stating homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity have failed.
In 2019, delegates voted to approve the Traditionalist Plan, strengthening penalties for those who violate these policies.
Although LGBTQ marriages and ordinations are prohibited, churches throughout the country and the Denver metro area break these rules every year. Under current policy, church members can file a complaint against respective leaders, which can lead to the clergyperson losing his or her ordination.
But in the UMC’s Mountain Sky Conference, which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana, the current bishop, Karen Oliveto, is the first openly lesbian person to hold her office. She recently said she won’t process complaints related to LGBTQ involvement in church rites.
“If people have proven they have the gift for ministry,” she said, “to simply be LGBTQ is no reason to receive a complaint.”
Oliveto’s stance — she believes the Traditionalist Plan has created “a church of punishment” — reflects a simmering fracture within the church that has unfolded over five decades.
Rev. Bob Kaylor, lead pastor at Tri-Lakes UMC in Monument, which follows the more traditional belief, believes “we have long been at least two churches trying to act like one church.”
Traditionalist views, he said, are often misunderstood.
“The biggest misconception is that if you insist that Christian marriage is reserved for one man and one woman that somehow you hate your LGBTQ neighbors,” he wrote in an email to Colorado Community Media. “We aren’t trying to deny any human rights to anyone. We simply believe that the rites of the church must be consistent with Scripture and the longstanding teaching of the church.”
The Protocol, conceived by delegates from churches across the world — including bishops and reverends — calls for worship practices to remain the same in all churches. But it gives traditionalists $25 million to create a new Methodist denomination, which would allow and enforce only unions between a man and a woman and prohibit ordinations of anyone who identifies as LGBTQ. Remaining churches continue as United Methodist and will support the inclusivity of all people in rites such as marriage and ordination.
While the Protocol isn’t the only proposal under consideration, it has the strongest momentum and was derived from the most viewpoints, according to UMC documents. Delegates worked on the plan in 2019 and announced it in January. In May, 862 delegates from across the world will convene in Minneapolis to vote on the Protocol.
If the legislation passes, the Mountain Sky Conference would vote by July 2021 whether to join the inclusive or traditional branch. Individual churches, regardless of their conference’s decision, also can vote to stand with either side, with all decisions to be made by Dec. 31, 2024.
According to Oliveto, most of the nearly 380 churches in her conference identify as inclusive of all people. In a petition signed last July, about a dozen leaders from churches throughout the conference stated they reject the traditionalists’ “strict requirements.”
“The Traditionalist Plan is against everything my region has come to understand about the body of Christ,” Oliveto said. “We’re grounded in an understanding of God’s generous grace.”
In the Denver metro area’s Methodist community, congregants and clergy say they are anxious and hopeful about the coming months and potential changes.
Some area churches have already lost members of their congregation over this issue. Others fear the split will lead to further departures.
Among religious leaders, “there is a strong push to keep as many people together as possible,” said Rev. Megan Armstrong, associate pastor at Arvada United Methodist Church.
Armstrong’s wife, Rev. Elizabeth Jackson, is also a UMC pastor. It’s important to the couple, who support an inclusive church, to try to keep congregations together, regardless of some members’ sexual orientation.
“These are the people who have sat next to you,” Armstrong said, “who have been there when your child was baptized, who have comforted you.”
An inevitable split
Despite these shared experiences, church data shows conflicting viewpoints among its members.
A 2019 UMC survey of more than 500 congregants in the U.S. showed that 44% identified as conservative or traditional in their religious beliefs, 20% identified as progressive or liberal and the rest were a mix of moderate and unsure, according to a news release from the church.
In 2015, the church completed a similar poll asking about U.S. congregants’ beliefs on same-sex marriage. It surveyed 400 people in each of three groups — pastors, leaders and members. Results showed 42% of members disagreed with the church’s ban on same-sex marriage. About 38% of pastors also disagreed.
On both sides of the debate, Methodists cite the Bible and the central mission of Christianity to support their beliefs.
“The Bible has only six passages that speak to anything related to the issue of homosexuality,” said Rev. Mark Feldmeir, lead pastor at St. Andrew UMC in Highlands Ranch. “Scripturally speaking, there’s no concept for homosexuality but we’ve interpreted some of those passages through the lens of our own biases.”
He believes passages interpreted in the present day as being about homosexuality actually referred to other concepts and have been misconstrued because of faulty translations and a lack of historical context.
Kaylor, one of the area’s few traditionalist pastors, disagrees, saying Scripture clearly defines marriage as between a man and a woman. He also maintains the traditionalist view is inclusive.
“All of us are sinners in need of God’s grace and restoration. That is, I think, a radically inclusive position — though a very different way of defining inclusivity than my progressive colleagues might express,” Kaylor said in his email. “... the most inclusive church is the one where all the people are finding together that new way of life in Christ, no matter what their particular pattern of sin and brokenness might have been. I need my LGBTQ friends, my addicted friends, my greedy friends, my gluttonous friends … to be part of the church and they need me — because we all need Christ.”
Some local churches, like Littleton United Methodist Church, fall somewhere in the middle of the debate. The church is open to all members of the LGBTQ community but also wants to be open to people who are somewhat more traditionalist, said Rev. Richard Evans, interim senior pastor.
“Right now,” he said, “I’m very much aware that I’m an interim minister of a 'purple’ (politically mixed) church trying to be a minister to everybody (and) convey that whatever happens, we remain open and respectful of different points of view.”
Local leaders such as Feldmeir and Armstrong believe the Mountain Sky conference will likely side with the inclusive branch if the Protocol is approved. But even if the legislation isn’t adopted, local pastors say a split is inevitable.
After the Traditionalist plan passed in 2019, St. Andrew led a group of about 50 like-minded churches from throughout the country in preliminary plans to leave the denomination if forced to follow the conservative policy. Those plans were put on hold when the Protocol was announced.
Should the Protocol not be approved, other churches such as Lakewood UMC also would consider leaving the denomination, said Rev. Ben Hensley, the church’s lead pastor.
“At Lakewood UMC, the conversation we will be having involves the question of who we are and our identity,” Hensley said. “Are we a congregation comfortable with discrimination against the LGBTQ community? I don’t believe (that we are).”
For churchgoers like the Jardines, these plans to split, no matter the process, are a necessary reassurance. Their experience has found few fully inclusive places of worship south of Denver. But for the Jardines’ son, whose family asked that his name not be used for privacy reasons, St. Andrew’s viewpoint has allowed him to find a church community, particularly among his peers, that he didn’t have before.
“It makes it a lot easier in normal life” to accept himself, the teen said.
Without the Highlands Ranch church, the family wouldn’t know where to go.
Said Ryan Jardine: “We wouldn’t feel comfortable anywhere where LGBTQ individuals can’t be fully included in every aspect, including as pastors or reverends, (or be able to) participate in all rites.”
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