Methodists from around the world have been meeting in St. Louis since Friday, battling with issues regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy. Laurel Harte-Westover, on a very personal level, has already won that fight.
A pastor at the First United Methodist in Schenectady back in 2001, Harte-Westover returned to her former downtown pulpit Sunday morning a new woman. She had been a married mother of two teenagers the last time she spoke at FUMC, but Sunday, while the congregation's regular pastor, Sara Baron, was away in St. Louis fighting for the LGBTQ community, Harte-Westover was telling her own story about "coming out."
"There's something special about coming full circle," said Harte-Westover, who also used the Sunday morning service to introduce her wife, Barb, whom she married last May. "I'm a completely different person than when I left here in 2001. But this place is so welcoming, it felt wonderful. A little bit scary, but not so much because of this place. I just hadn't done this before in this way, so I was a little unsure how it would be received because it wasn't a traditional sermon. But I felt like I was getting good feedback the whole time I was talking."
Baron, who knew Harte-Westover and her story, felt Harte-Westover would be the perfect substitute pastor for this particular Sunday. While Baron was arguing for a change in the church's Book of Discipline regarding same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ issues in St. Louis, Hart-Westover would be telling her story in Schenectady. Harte-Westover, who left the UMC and transitioned to the United Church of Christ denomination, had been working as a chaplain at St. Mary's Hospital in Amsterdam for three and a half years until last October.
"We're relocating to Syracuse, but Sara knew I had served at her church and she asked me to come and tell my story because it pertains to the changes she and others are working for in the Methodist church," said Harte-Westover. "I'm being asked to share my story as a Queer person who has transitioned out of the UMC after 20 years of working for change from within, and to bring some kind of hope to the people of First UMC as their larger denomination continues to struggle with the role, and even the sacred worth, of LGBTQ folks in their midst."
When Harte-Westover showed up at FUMC in 1999, the congregation had already identified itself as "reconciling congregation" three years earlier, indicating it was open to everyone regardless of his or her sexual identity. At that time, however, Harte-Westover was wrestling with issues of her own sexuality. She told Sunday's crowd at FUMC how it wasn't easy for a fourth generation Methodist minister and a mom to admit to herself, let alone the church community, that she was gay.
"Finally," she said, "pretending to be straight was too much. In the end, I wasn't defrocked or told to get out. I chose to leave the Methodist church. But, I did feel pushed."
Harte-Westover is hoping members of the worldwide church in the next day or two will make things easier for those who today find themselves in her kind of situation. At FUMC Sunday, she certainly had a supportive crowd.
Rudy Dehn, 99, and a member of the congregation since 1945, was impressed with Harte-Westover's talk and said "it's time to go with the flow," and Alan Marshall, a FUMC member since 1991, also confirmed the congregation's strong backing of Harte-Westover and what Baron and others are trying to do in St. Louis. "I thought her story was a very powerful statement," Marshall said. "I thought it was fascinating. To be honest, I was riveted by her whole story. We definitely support her and what Sara's doing in St. Louis. We're all on board for this, definitely."
Baron, reached in St. Louis at the conference on Sunday, wasn't overly optimistic about any positive resolution to the issue, expected to come on Monday or Tuesday.
"I expect the church will move just slightly toward openness," she said. "The move will be enough to matter, particularly in upstate New York where our LGBTQ friends will be freed to be out publicly. However, it will not be enough to bring justice, and we will have to keep working toward it."
The church has three proposals that the 864 members in St. Louis will vote on. The church's Book of Discipline currently states that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
"We're the second largest protestant denomination in the world, and every four years we have a global gathering called the General Conference," said Baron. "The last one we had in 2016, there was such a problem over this issue that we called a special session to deal with it. So a year earlier than usual, we're meeting to see what can happen. We're hoping the more progressive proposal wins."
The Three Options
Here are the three options being considered in St. Louis.
The One Church Plan would remove the current prohibitions and let individual churches decide whether they would allow same-sex marriage. Local Methodist conferences would have the ability to make decisions on LGBT clergy ordination.
The Traditional Plan would retain and strengthen the current prohibitions by inviting progressive churches supporting the gay issues to leave the United Methodist Church and create a new denomination.
The Connectional Conference Plan would reduce the church's current five geographical jurisdictions to three - one supporting LGBT inclusion, another continuing to support the current policy, and a third giving each church the choice of deciding. This plan would require amendments to the church constitution that would not be complete until 2025.
In the U.S., those five geographical jurisdictions are Northeastern, Southeastern, North Central, South Central and Western. The Upper New York Conference of the Methodist Church, which includes all of the Capital Region Methodist churches, is part of the Northeastern jurisdiction.
According to the Rev. Mark Ledbetter, pastor of the Eastern Parkway Methodist Church in Schenectady, the three options available to members could present a problem.
"It's hard to have a gut feeling about what's going to happen," said Ledbetter, who added that the Eastern Parkway church is also a "reconciling congregation," as is Delmar FUMC, Saratoga Springs UMC and Christ Church-UMC in Troy. "The traditionalist base is probably going to hold, and the other two options may pull votes away from each other. It's not an either or situation. We believe the two other options are much better than the Traditional Plan, but who knows if any the options will pass.
"Then, if one of them does pass, they'll be negotiations and Roberts Rules of Orders, and then we'll have what is essentially a fourth option," added Ledbetter. "It can get pretty complicated. It will be sad because I don't want to see anyone from a particular tradition to get hurt by this. But the 2016 conference was so mean-spirited and alienating. It was antithetical to Jesus' teachings to me."