Gay protesters, a Texan’s compromise and the schism that may upend United Methodism

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Don Hand was dejected, dismayed — and desperate for what he thought would be a compromise.

Already, he’d seen a Texas Methodist minister set his ordination papers ablaze, a protest that prompted another to come out as gay and a group of ministers to demand a more gay-friendly United Methodist Church, just a few years after its 1968 founding.

At the UMC’s 1972 national meeting, where delegates tensely debated an official stance on homosexuality, Hand scribbled a half-sentence amendment intended to strike a middle ground. It left intact the resolution’s view that all people are equal in the eyes of God, but added that homosexuality was nonetheless “incompatible” with Christian beliefs.

It passed.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of heat or anger,” Hand, a San Antonio trial attorney and Methodist layman, recalled in an interview this week. “It was just a smooth piece of business.”

Nearly half a century later, Hand’s 16-word addition is at the core of a schism that many believe will fracture the nation’s second-largest Protestant group. Delegates at the denomination’s annual conference in May will consider a divorce, the culmination of years of challenges to the so-called “incompatibility clause,” which more liberal United Methodists say alienated LGBTQ congregants and ministers.

Those tensions came to a head last year, when UMC leaders put forward five proposed plans that would create anywhere from one to four new global Methodist denominations and, potentially, dissolve the current UMC. Most of the proposals would create new denominations based on ideological views: traditionalists and progressives would go their separate ways 52 years after a merger created the UMC.

And while at least one of the proposals is predicated on a desire for “reconciliation and grace through separation,” many expect a nastier divorce that could entangle local churches in battles over property, theology and parishioners.

“This is now coming home to every zip code in America,” said Terry Mattingly, a longtime religious commentator and currently a fellow at University of Mississippi’s Overby Center. “That’s how widespread this is going to be. … Methodism has broken down, and there is no one in Methodism with the power to settle this.”

Schisms are nothing new to Methodism, dating back to the days of slavery. But much of the current in-fighting originated at the meeting where Hand proffered his amendment. Still, even before then, there were signs of conflict, said Ashley Dreff, a Methodist historian at High Point University in North Carolina.

Dreff said that the sexual revolution of the 1960s influenced some Methodists to adopt more progressive views on sexuality and other social issues, particularly in coastal cities such as San Francisco.

But those liberal bastions were outliers. The birth of UMC came as minorities had begun to make strides, but blacks still faced discrimination, women’s struggle for equal rights was in its infancy and gays had only started to come out. Most people believed homosexuality was a product of environment and opposed gays in the clergy, polls found.

Dreff described the views on sexuality among more liberal Methodists as “extremely radical” for the time.

And so, after the 1968 merger of the Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren Church created the UMC, Methodists needed to reconcile divergent views on theology, scripture and social issues.

Rather than truly hash out the differences, Dreff said, the UMC opted to uphold “theological pluralism,” meaning a “big tent” that accommodates a wide diversity of opinions and approaches.

It was a temporary — and flawed — fix, Dreff said.

“I like to say it is the beauty and the bane of United Methodism because it’s beautiful in concept, but it does not work in practice, especially when it comes to sexual ethics,” she said. “Because when you are creating a sexual ethic within a theologically plural society, someone’s going to be left out.”

That became clear to Hand at a 1971 meeting of Texas Methodists. Wil Schaefer, a San Antonio-area minister who’d recently been stripped of his ordination by a regional discipline board that found he’d had a heterosexual affair, walked down the meeting’s aisle with what at first appeared to be a flaming bouquet. In fact, it was his ordination papers engulfed in flames.

“Bishop, here are my credentials!” he shouted.

Emboldened, another Texas minister thereafter came forward to ask his Methodist brothers to “deal publicly with what they have known privately,” according to a 2017 paper by Methodist historian Robert Sledge.

“Most of the ministers and leaders of the church have known this about me for some five years,” Gene Leggett said at the meeting, proclaiming his homosexuality. “We have lived by an unspoken agreement of ‘you leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.’ ”

Months later, at a meeting of southwestern Methodists, a group of young men calling themselves the “Gay Liberation Front” insisted that attendees take up no other business until the issue of homosexuality was settled. They touted a list of 10 demands, including that Methodists “accept the authenticity of the gay lifestyle;” “cease to define gay people by their sexuality alone;” “acknowledge that oppression of gays is an extension of oppression of women and Third World peoples;” and campaign against Texas’ anti-sodomy laws.

At the 1972 meeting, Hand was struck by a proposed doctrinal statement on human sexuality. It called for more efforts to “understand human sexuality,” affirmed that sex outside of marriage could be “exploitative within as well as outside of marriage” and said that “homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth.”

Hand took issue with some of the language, which he saw as ambiguous and reflective of the ongoing sexual revolution and thus a “serious departure from the teachings of Christian tradition.”

He added his compromise, a caveat at the end of the proposal’s last sentence: “we do not condone the practice of homosexuality, and consider this practice incompatible with Christian doctrine,” he wrote.

The compromise was “kind of a papering over” of the broader issue, Sledge told the Chronicle. “It was a way for traditionalists to accommodate the concerns of the insurgents” without sacrificing their convictions.

Since then, the language has been challenged at almost every UMC meeting.

In the same period, the denomination’s regional bodies in the United States have continued to clash over discipline, race and gender issues, contrasts so stark that two Duke University sociologists once declared that there were, in reality, seven Methodist churches in America.

“These differences may be so potentially divisive that the church, remembering the struggles of the past, prefers to ignore them,” the paper’s authors wrote in 1985. “… Although some of the specific conflicts within Methodism appear on the surface to be over ideology, polity or between racial and cultural groups, the underlying causes may be regional differences.”

Those trends persist today, Mattingly noted.

“There never was a united Methodist Church — It was always a compromise.”

Recent research by Ryan Burge, a professor of religion and political science at Eastern Illinois University, shows that support for gay marriage among United Methodists mirrors broader trends in America. Nearly 80 percent of United Methodist voters under 35 years old support gay marriage, Burge found. Less than half of those older than 76 hold similar views. The research also found wide variations in support for gay marriage based on region, education and church attendance.

Yet his research also found United Methodists care far less about gay marriage as a voting issue than they do national security, health care and government corruption.

Scott Jones, the resident bishop of the Texas Annual Conference, says the issue is boiling over now for two reasons: the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S.; and UMC expansion in Africa and Asia, where attitudes toward homosexuality and other social issues are typically more conservative.

That’s shifted some power away from more liberal United Methodists.

“We have been debating issues about human sexuality since 1972,” Jones said. “It has always been controversial.”

Dreff, the Methodist historian, added that the legalization of same-sex marriage has forced ministers to take a side on the issue — and risk losing their ministerial credentials.

“All of a sudden, they’re being asked to perform same sex marriages by their congregants, and are for the first time having to kind of confront how the United Methodist Church understands sexuality,” she said.

Dreff agreed that the issue is likely to at least split the UMC. But she doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing for Methodism.

She’s choosing to view it with optimism — “as potential new life coming into the church” that allows it to “reach new people in underserved communities that are worthy of love and worthy of affirmation.”

Hand, 90, stands by the balance he sought with the incompatibility clause, nearly five decades after he wrote the fateful half-sentence. But he added he doesn’t mind if other Methodists see it otherwise.

“I think its important that the members be happy,” he said this week. “And if they can’t be happy together, they can divide.”

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