JJ Warren of New York embraces Julie Arms Meeks of Atlanta during protests outside the United Methodist Church's 2019 Special Session of the General Conference in St. Louis, Mo., Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The United Methodist Church faces a likely surge in defections and defiance after delegates at a crucial conference voted to uphold — and bolster — the denomination’s stance against homosexuality, same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings)

UMC decision still has many unknowns for congregations, clergy

Teddy Murphy, a United Methodist from Lawrenceville, is pained.

He is torn between staying with a local church he loves and remaining in a denomination that he no longer supports after a three-day special General Conference meeting in which United Methodist Church delegates voted Tuesday to uphold — and bolster — its stance against homosexuality, same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy.

A day after delegates in St. Louis narrowly beat back support for the One Church Plan that would have paved the way for clergy, local congregations and conferences to make their own decision on the LGBTQ issues, United Methodists were emotionally sifting through three days of debates over church policy and looking for ways to heal and move forward — or away.

While Murphy recognizes the good that the United Methodist Church does in the community, he’s also at a crossroad.

“Church is a part of life, a part of families and a part of culture. Leaving is more than scriptural or theological differences,” he said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “When you leave, you leave a community. I am struggling to know whether or not that is the right choice.”

The Traditional Plan, which maintains the opposition to same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy, won by a narrow margin at the General Conference meeting — 438 to 384, and some in Atlanta are glad it passed.

Anthony Jackson, a member of Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta, feels vindicated. “I feel they voted right,” he said. “If you go with what’s right, you will never be wrong. Same-sex couples getting together is wrong. There’s got to be limitations on how far these relationships go. I’m firm in my belief.”

>> RELATED: Georgians’ early reaction to the UMC vote

All the items contained in the Traditional Plan have been sent to the UMC’s Judicial Council for declaratory decisions. The council is looking at the constitutionality of the individual petitions. “We will not be able to confirm the final disposition of this matter until we hear their decision,” said a UMC spokeswoman.

If everything moves forward, the Traditional Plan would take effect in January 2020, just months before the regularly scheduled General Conference in May 2020 in Minneapolis.

“So, the Conference is over … but it’s not really over,” the Rev. Bill Britt, senior pastor of Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, wrote in a letter to his congregation. “We will know after the Judicial Council meets in late April. So, the wait continues.

“Whenever there is conflict in the church, it is uncomfortable and even very painful,” Britt said. “Oftentimes our first inclination is to run from the conflict. However, it is my experience that, in the midst of the conflict and pain, we are not alone, and oftentimes that is when God’s best work is done.”

The United Methodist Church is the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination behind the Southern Baptist Convention.

>> RELATED: United Methodists fear split over LGTBQ vote in church

In a video message posted on the website of the North Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson acknowledged that everyone will have a different take on the General Conference.

“I think everybody needs to go home and pray and reflect and kind of figure out where we are as a church,” she said.

She favored the One Church Plan, which would have “really been a unifying force in the life of the church and given us a bigger vision.”

While she was “sad” the One Church plan didn’t pass, “it’s not all about me.”

The General Conference “didn’t come to any clear-cut conclusions. It never does.” She said even the plan that passed did not have the teeth or penalties that many people wanted it to contain.

Yet some still consider it a victory.

“I feel wonderful,” said the Rev. Randy Mickler, pastor emeritus of Mount Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, who did not attend the conference. Mickler said he wanted a traditional plan “with teeth.” “I’m not surprised that the great majority of United Methodists believe in the authority of Scripture, and that’s what this victory is about,” he said.

The debate on how the church deals with LGBTQ issues has been around for decades, and the fallout from St. Louis will be felt for years to come. Some expect it to come up again.

The Rev. Cassie Rapko, senior pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Grant Park, said she’s heartbroken over the decision.

However, “it’s not going to change what we do,” she said. “We will continue to be United Methodists, and we’re going to continue to keep preaching love and preaching the Gospel. We’re going to continue to be a place for all persons. … We’re going to need healing from this conference, but I also know we serve a wonderful God, who is going to be with us through everything.”

The General Conference drew more than 864 delegates from throughout the U.S. and as far away as Kenya and the Philippines. Some of the most conservative — and vocal — churches are in Africa.

In some nations, same-sex relationships are criminalized. Or it’s dangerous to voice support.

The meeting was also watched by other denominations.

The Right Rev. Robert C. Wright, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, wrote that he was “obligated to speak against any plan or proposal by any church, especially my own, that intends to make some of God’s children an inferior class of baptized people. …”

“To my LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters, the Episcopal Church is not a perfect church, but know that you are welcome in the congregations of the Diocese of Atlanta.”

In fact, the Episcopal Church began dealing with LGBT issues four decades ago. In 2015, the church passed a binding resolution that allowed priests to perform same-sex marriages in the church. Even before then, though, openly gay priests could be ordained.

“The full outcome (for the United Methodists) may not be for a year or two because there are still a lot of things that have to be worked out and that will take time,” said Ken Walden, president-dean of Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta. “That’s everything from who is going to leave, who is going to stay and how this will manifest itself in their faith and ministry.”

BY THE NUMBERS

United Methodists in Georgia: more than 467,000

United Methodist churches in the North Georgia Conference, which includes Atlanta: more than 800

Delegates at the UMC’s General Conference: more than 864

Delegates there from the North Georgia Conference: 22

WHAT’S NEXT

April: All the items contained in the Traditional Plan have been sent to the Judicial Council for declaratory decisions. The council is looking at the constitutionality of the individual petitions. The Judicial Council’s next regular session is scheduled for late April.

January 2020: The Traditional Plan would take effect.

May 2020: The regularly scheduled General Conference will meet in Minneapolis.

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