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Silas Walker, Deseret News
Bishop Karen Oliveto serves as guest preacher at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. In February, leaders of the United Methodist Church will meet to decide how to approach ordination and marriage for LGBT members. The professional and personal lives of people like Bishop Oliveto, the church's first openly lesbian bishop, hang in the balance.

SALT LAKE CITY — Methodists from around the world will meet in St. Louis from Feb. 23-26 to try to resolve 50 years of conflict over the status of gays and lesbians in their church.

Members of the United Methodist Church don't agree on biblical teachings about homosexuality. More than that, they don't agree on whether it's necessary to agree about homosexuality in order to remain a unified denomination, church members and leaders said.

Participants in this special session of general conference on sexuality are tasked with determining whether it's possible to avoid a denominational schism. They'll debate policies on LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage, seeking to understand God's will for the church.

"Our hope is not that this is an argument, but rather a way for followers of Jesus to develop empathy for each other and to listen to disagreements," wrote Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, in an email.

Conference delegates will vote on multiple potential paths forward, weighing whether to change church teachings stating that homosexual acts are sinful or provide an exit plan for those who don't share this belief. Even creating room for pastors and congregations to hold a range of views on LGBTQ rights could lead to a schism, said Mark Tooley, author of "Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century" and president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.

"This could potentially rip apart thousands of congregations," he said.

Ongoing conflict

Six weeks before the conference, which could change the course of her career, Bishop Karen Oliveto, the United Methodist Church's first openly lesbian bishop, was in Salt Lake City preaching on God's love.

"If there's one thing I want you to leave with today, it is with a knowledge deep down in your hearts that God delights in you," she told those gathered at First United Methodist Church on Jan. 13.

It's easy to lose that message in a world filled with harmful stereotypes, she said. People are judged because of their economic status, race, sexual orientation and other traits.

"How could we do that to someone?" Bishop Oliveto asked. "How could we make them doubt that God loves them (and) claims them?"

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Bishop Karen Oliveto serves as guest preacher at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. In February, leaders of the United Methodist Church will meet to decide how to approach ordination and marriage for LGBT members. The professional and personal lives of people like Bishop Oliveto, the church's first openly lesbian bishop, hang in the balance.

Since its founding in 1968, the United Methodist Church has tried to balance a message of God's love for all with its ban on LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage.

Currently, church policy affirms that gays and lesbians are made in God's image, but says that acting on same-sex attraction is "incompatible with Christian teaching." The denomination's Book of Discipline outlaws ordaining "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" and hosting same-sex weddings on church property.

These regulations are enforced inconsistently. Some Methodist pastors and churches take part in same-sex marriages and face few or no consequences, said the Rev. Elizabeth McVicker, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, which advertises its support for the LGBTQ community each week in the church bulletin.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Bishop Karen Oliveto visits with a congregant while serving as guest preacher at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. In February, leaders of the United Methodist Church will meet to decide how to approach ordination and marriage for LGBT members. The professional and personal lives of people like Bishop Oliveto, the church's first openly lesbian bishop, hang in the balance.

"Several pastors have been charged with disobedience and lost their orders. … But in the past few years, there has been a range of resolutions to these complaints, including some pastors being allowed to continue in their ministry," she said.

Despite current policies, Bishop Oliveto was elected to her role as leader of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area, which includes Utah, in 2016. She doesn't think of herself as a symbol of political protest; she's just happy to be doing work she loves.

"It was a Holy Spirit moment, not political maneuvering," she said of her election.

A path forward

The United Methodist Church operates like a democracy. Every four years, between 600 and 1,000 church members gather at general conference to debate and revise church policy, relying on their "conscience and spiritual discernment" to lead the way, Bishop Carter said.

"No single person, not even the Council of Bishops, can speak for the United Methodist Church. Only the general conference can," the denomination's website explains.

At the last general conference in 2016, arguments over sexuality seemed to take all the air out of the room, Bishop Oliveto said. Church leaders chose to set those debates aside and focus on other proposals.

"It got so heated … that the bishops removed all the legislation related to homosexuality," she said.

After the conference, bishops worked to nurture a more productive conversation on LGBTQ inclusion. They selected 32 church members, including clergy, from the U.S. and around the world to serve on the Commission on a Way Forward.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Mark Annie, of Salt Lake City, bows his head during Bishop Karen Oliveto sermon at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. In February, leaders of the United Methodist Church will meet to decide how to approach ordination and marriage for LGBT members. The professional and personal lives of people like Bishop Oliveto, the church's first openly lesbian bishop, hang in the balance.

The commission met nine times from January 2017 to May 2018, praying over, debating and outlining potential solutions to their church's decadeslong conflict over LGBTQ rights. Its final report, released last July, outlined three potential paths forward.

That work serves as a starting point for the special session of general conference later this month, which involves 864 delegates. These men and women from United Methodist churches across the globe will vote on which plan to focus on and then use additional rounds of debate and voting to perfect their choice.

Several plans are up for consideration:

  • One Church Plan

The One Church plan, which is supported by a majority of Methodist bishops, would allow individual pastors and churches to make decisions on LGBTQ rights, instead of mandating a single approach from the denominational level. However, language about homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching would be removed from church documents.

Under this plan, clergy members would choose whether or not to perform same-sex weddings and they'd be safe from reprisal either way. Similarly, each regional governing body would decide for itself whether to ordain LGBTQ people, and individual churches would vote on whether to allow same-sex weddings on church property.

  • Traditional plan

The traditional plan reaffirms that acting on same-sex attraction is incompatible with the Methodist church teachings. It aims to make upholding this conclusion a prerequisite for church leadership.

Bishops would not be allowed to ordain LGBTQ individuals or officiate same-sex weddings under the traditional plan. If they did, they'd face stricter punishments from the denomination.

This plan and a revised version that's already circulating also outline an exit strategy for churches that want to affirm LGBTQ rights. The updated proposal would offer $200,000 grants to regional bodies that leave the denomination, which would ease their transition to independence.

  • Connectional Conference plan

The Connectional Conference plan is the most complicated option being considered. It calls for the current geography-based structure of church governance to be replaced with a structure driven by beliefs about sexuality.

Under this plan, regional conferences in the U.S. would choose between three connectional conferences: one that rejects same-sex weddings and LGBTQ clergy in all cases, one that allows members to follow their conscience on LGBTQ rights and one that requires members to celebrate same-sex marriages and ordain LGBTQ clergy. Methodist groups outside of the U.S. could choose to join one of these three conferences or create their own.

  • Simple plan

The Simple plan would remove all restrictions related to homosexuality from the United Methodist Church's governing documents without creating conscience protections for church leaders who oppose the change. Although this option wasn't included in the Commission on a Way Forward report, church leaders decided last month that it was eligible for consideration.

Competing interests

Several factors complicate efforts to resolve the LGBTQ rights debate, according to Methodist leaders. The denomination's geographical makeup, size and property holdings, as well as church attendance trends, all contribute to the current gridlock.

"I think if we had been just a U.S. church, we would have had enough votes (to change sexuality policies) years ago," Bishop Oliveto said.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Bishop Karen Oliveto raises her hand during a song at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. In February, leaders of the United Methodist Church will meet to decide how to approach ordination and marriage for LGBT members. The professional and personal lives of people like Bishop Oliveto, the church's first openly lesbian bishop, hang in the balance.

Tooley agreed, noting that growth overseas helps explain why the denomination kept its current policies when other mainline Protestant denominations began to ordain LGBTQ clergy and participate in same-sex weddings. The United Methodist Church has more than 12 million members total, including around 5.6 million in Africa, Asia and Europe.

The Rev. Sungho Lee, pastor of Concord United Methodist Church in Concord, California, and a Korean immigrant, said that while non-American Methodists aren't necessarily more conservative than American church members, they do tend to approach the LGBTQ rights debate differently. Most notably, they may not see sexuality as a human rights issue at all.

"I had not thought about sex as a human rights issue" before immigrating to the U.S., the Rev. Lee said. He saw sex as a means to have children and continue the family line.

The Rev. Lee worries that changing the Book of Discipline's language on sexuality, which is called for in the One Church and Simple plans, will harm Methodists living in cultures with these kinds of beliefs. In a recent commentary for United Methodist News Service, he advocated for keeping the prohibitions against homosexual activity while also allowing for acts of "civil disobedience."

However, if the church does not change the rules on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage, it could lose an entire generation of U.S. Christians, Bishop Oliveto said. She's met young Methodists who gave up on seeking ordination or even left the denomination because of the church's sexuality-related teachings.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Bishop Karen Oliveto serves as guest preacher at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. In February, leaders of the United Methodist Church will meet to decide how to approach ordination and marriage for LGBT members. The professional and personal lives of people like Bishop Oliveto, the church's first openly lesbian bishop, hang in the balance.

"We run the risk of no longer being relevant to the generations that come after us," she said.

A church's stance on LGBTQ rights does seem to affect membership, according to a recent analysis of the Episcopal Church, which has advocated for same-sex marriage and LGBTQ non-discrimination protections during the last decade.

"Those who strongly oppose same-sex marriage are 20 percent more likely to have left (the Episcopal Church) than those who strongly support" it, wrote Benjamin Knoll, a politics professor at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, for Episcopal Café last month. "Those who strongly support same-sex marriage are roughly five times more likely to be an Episcopal convert than the average American."

Allowing churches to split off from the United Methodist Church because of their beliefs about sexuality might seem like the path of least resistance, but that step would create new problems even as it solved the LGBTQ rights debate, the Rev. McVicker said.

Departing churches would need to fight to maintain property controlled by the denomination and pastors would risk losing their pensions. The United Methodist Church would shrink, making it less effective at political advocacy and community service.

"Keeping the denomination together would allow the work we do with missions around the world (to continue) and keep ministries intact," the Rev. McVicker said.

Is unity possible?

On Feb. 6, the United Methodist News Service hosted a discussion between supporters of each plan up for discussion at this month's conference. Participants took turns pitching their plan and responding to promises made by other speakers.

The event was somber. Speakers wanted to believe church unity is still possible, but they could each offer reasons why schism seems inevitable.

"We're in a low-trust environment," said the Rev. Chris Ritter, who was speaking on behalf of the Connectional Conference plan, during the call.

Amid ongoing tension, heartache and conflict, some Methodists wish the sexuality debate could be set aside permanently, like it was at the 2016 general conference, noted Gheeta Smith, chairwoman of the board of directors for Reconciling Ministries Network, a Methodist organization that advocates for full LGBTQ inclusion.

" The conversation about LGBTQ identity and the church is significant. "
Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops

"There are people on both sides saying we're worried this could split the denomination or cause more turmoil. They're saying, 'Why are we talking about this when we're supposed to be focused on other things?'" she said.

Bishop Carter, who leads the church's Council of Bishops, said working to solve sexuality-related conflict doesn't keep the denomination from addressing other crucial concerns like poverty, immigration or climate change.

"The conversation about LGBTQ identity and the church is significant," he said.

It's unclear what the future holds for the United Methodist Church. Delegates could fail to agree on a plan or choose one that requires more planning and voting at the next general conference in 2020. The Rev. McVicker, Bishop Oliveto and Tooley are all worried about how this week's conference will affect their denomination and the churches they attend or lead.

"If the traditional plan is chosen, then pastors will have to reaffirm and maybe even sign a certification that they will uphold all of the laws in our Book of Discipline, including those related to homosexuality. I would not be able to sign that document, so I would need to leave my denomination or stay and be subject to a complaint," the Rev. McVicker said.

But if individual churches are instructed to decide for themselves how to approach LGBTQ issues, it could lead to more division, not less, Tooley said.

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"It takes the battle that's been basically contained in general conference and locates it in almost every local congregation," he said. "The end result is probably not a good one for many local churches."

Bishop Oliveto said she's praying for a "Holy Spirit moment." She hopes God will lead conference delegates "where none of us can imagine."

"I don't understand how schism can be part of God's plan. It says in the Bible that one part of the body can't say to another that 'I have no need of you,'" she said.