In the wake of the recent Upper New York Annual United Methodist Conference, a number of local churches are concerned by their parent organization’s position on same-sex marriage.
“My church deplores the United Methodist Church stance that officially states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings,” said Pastor Paul Sweet of the Christ Church Troy. “[We] do our best to heal the harm that continues to be caused by the church.”
At the June 17-19 conference, Bishop Mark Webb, who presides over the Upper New York Episcopal Region, responded to complaints about his removal of Fairport pastor Richelle Goff from the regional board. He allegedly removed her for publicly supporting same-sex marriage.
“One of the requirements [for board members] has consistently been the ability to support United Methodist policy and the book of discipline of the United Methodist Church,” Webb said, according to reports. “No individual member or entity shall violate, ignore, or negate church law.”
Some churches in the Capital Region want to stand in solidarity with Reverend Goff, and disagree with the opinion of the greater United Methodist Church organization, said Pastor Sara Baron of the First United Methodist Church Schenectady.
“He did this distinctly as punishment for her public statement,” said Baron. “If you’re going to punish her, punish all of us.”
It has been a chargeable offense in the church to marry same-sex couples in the church since its founding in 1968, according to Baron. However, the church’s opposition to homosexuality has intensified since the 2019 United Methodist General Conference.
“The church doubled down on homophobia,” Baron said. “The response in most of the U.S. was swift, angry, and uncompromising that this was not going to work for us.”
The First United Methodist Church of Schenectady has been doing public same-sex marriages since she took over in 2013, said Baron. “Most [of my] predecessors were doing same-sex marriages, but they were doing them quietly,” she said. “[Eventually] doing things in secret wasn’t good enough.”
Pastor Natalie Bowerman of the Eastern Parkway Church in Schenectady said her congregation is similarly determined to counter the homophobic stance of their parent church. “We dissent from the official church’s position on this. We are unabashedly open towards all our LGBTQA+ parishioners, neighbors, and friends. We don’t put any barriers on how an LGBTQA+ person could participate in the church,” said Bowerman.
Eastern Parkway, The First United Methodist Church Schenectady, and Christ Church Troy, along with several other local churches are members of the Reconciling Ministries Network.
“[The Network] equips and mobilizes United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” according to its website.
In early 2020, conservative Methodist church leaders across the world announced plans to form a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church, that does not recognize same-sex marriage. The plan, titled The Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, called for the new denomination to receive $25 million in United Methodist Church funds.
Though he previously stated that he wanted to reach a compromise in the church without the formation of a new denomination, Bishop Webb signed on to the protocol in March 2020. “[I intend] to follow God’s call upon my life and be a part of the formation of a global traditional expression of Methodism,” Webb told the United Methodist News Service.
The Daily Gazette was unable to reach Webb for comment for this story.
According to Sweet, it is disappointing to witness the split in the church, but differences in opinion toward homosexuality have become too divisive of an issue to continue as one church. “I will grieve the loss of the institution and the positive things, but at the same time there needs to be change in some way,” he said, according to reports.
Baron too said it seems unlikely at this point that the church will agree on a policy toward same-sex marriage. “We’re in this horrible holding pattern where we recognize that we can’t abide with each other,” she said.
Amidst the anticipation of the church’s split, Baron and other local pastors are planning an event for New York reconciling churches this fall.
Set for the weekend of Oct. 1-3, two well-known LGBTQ members of the United Methodist Church will be worshipping with local churchgoers. Musician Mark Miller will be performing at the Saratoga Springs United Methodist Church, while Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly homosexual bishop, will be lecturing and worshipping at the First United Methodist Church Schenectady, said Baron.
Baron said she expects people to come from all areas of the state, including Plattsburgh, Rochester and Ithaca, to take part in the event. “Mark and Karen are dearly beloved members of the reconciling community,” she said.
With the possibility of a split in the church still up in the air, Baron said she will continue to run the risk of punishment from the church in order to marry same-sex couples.
“I am called to celebrate God’s love where it is found,” she said. “If in doing so that means they take away my ordination orders, so be it.”