Local Pastors React to Proposed Methodist Split

Jan 28, 2020

The RISE faith community in Harrisonburg prides itself on welcoming "absolutely everyone," says Pastor Amanda Garber.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

On January 3rd, a group of United Methodist leaders publicly announced a plan for the denomination to divide, based on disagreements over same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay people as pastors. If that plan is approved at the denomination’s General Conference this May, it would give regional conferences and individual churches the option to leave and join a new “traditionalist” denomination. WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi reports on how local Methodist leaders are reacting.

In the wake of the most recent proposal to divide the United Methodist Church over LGBTQ inclusion, local churches are waiting, some with bated breath, to see how these discussions play out in the General Conference. The plan is known as the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” And there are mixed emotions about that possible separation among local church leaders, such as Kirk Nave, a pastor at Braddock Street United Methodist Church in Winchester.

KIRK NAVE: I’m a born and raised United Methodist. My father was a United Methodist pastor, so I don’t want to ever say that I think separation is a great thing. And yet, this is the first time I’ve had hope in this conflict, because we’ve been working on this for years, and have not been able to come to resolution.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time the denomination has divided. Robert Brown, a professor of religion at James Madison University, notes that, because Protestantism doesn’t have a central authority like the Catholic Pope, Protestant churches in general have split many, many times.

Robert Brown is a professor of religion at James Madison University.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

ROBERT BROWN: There are 5 or 6,000 different denominations among Protestants. In American history, there has been a lot of this kind of division. It’s usually over doctrinal issues … should you baptize infants or should you baptize people as adults? Those kinds of things. But there have been some important social issues as well that churches have divided over … So in the 1840s and also into the 1850s, the major Protestant denominations – Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists – all split over slavery.

There’s a variety of opinion on LGBTQ inclusion among local churches, and no congregation is entirely of one mind. However, three of the four pastors who agreed to be interviewed for this story said that their congregation at least leans towards full inclusion. The RISE faith community in Harrisonburg, and their pastor Amanda Garber, go even further.

Amanda Garber is pastor of the RISE faith community in Harrisonburg.
Credit Courtesy of Amanda Garber

AMANDA GARBER: From day one, we have welcomed absolutely everyone, and a phrase we frequently use here is, ‘everyone means everyone.’ … We believe that it is entirely possible to be a faithful follower of Jesus and a person who identifies as LGBTQ.

Garber was suspended without pay for a month in 2015 by the United Methodist Church after she officiated a same-sex wedding for two of the founders of RISE. After that –

GARBER: I made the decision in late 2015, along with my leaders, that I cannot in good conscience, and as a person of faith, officiate any weddings until things change.

Winchester pastor Kirk Nave said that he, too, wants to be allowed to perform same-sex ceremonies. So did Pastor Robert Lewis of Hinton Avenue Church in Charlottesville.

ROBERT LEWIS: My entire ministry has been kind of defined by disagreement with our Book of Discipline on this issue, and longing for change … my spiritual journey has been shaped by gay and lesbian Christians who were mentors and friends to me.

Personal relationships were also what convinced Garber that she couldn’t stay silent on these issues.

GARBER: … sitting with countless individuals who shared their stories, who showed me the cut marks on their arms, who told me the stories of attempted suicides, who told me the stories of being the outcast in their families. I mean, story after story after story. And also sitting with individuals who said to me, over and over again, ‘I have tried to be someone other than who I am, and I simply cannot.’

While Pastor Joel Robinette of Keezletown United Methodist Church said that his congregation leans more towards the conservative, traditionalist opinion, he encourages open conversation on the topic.

Joel Robinette is pastor at Keezletown United Methodist Church.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

JOEL ROBINETTE: We have a mix. We have people who are kind of very firm in their convictions, we have people that are asking questions and trying to understand what are issues or what are implications for the church, we have people with some basic questions about things about trying to understand emerging learning on human sexuality, wrestling with things like, how do we understand this with the scriptures? What will we actually do in how we relate to people?

Robinette said that he himself would not officiate a same-sex wedding, but he has nuanced views on it.

ROBINETTE: I’ve seen how some Christians, through their faith, and wrestling with God and the scriptures, get to where that would be a faithful way to live out their sexual attraction, desires, and their love for another person. For me, I haven’t gotten there through those avenues, so I wouldn’t perform a same-sex wedding.

One thing seems certain: the United Methodist Church, and Christianity as a whole, are neither the first, nor will they be the last, to grapple with questions about LGBTQ folks.

BROWN: This issue has been really roiling every religious body in the United States, and globally, I think, as well.