When Pastor Vicki Flippin was asked to give a greeting at last May's General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC)—where nearly a thousand delegates from regional Church conferences around the world meet once every four years to set the Church's official stated policies on social issues—the event didn't go as planned.
Filipin, at the time an associate pastor at the progressive Manhattan Church of the Village, had been asked to deliver a greeting at a conference worship service. But she had written one that specifically welcomed LGBTQ people to the conference and was told that unless she removed the mention, she would not be allowed to speak. She chose to recuse herself from the speech in response.
"I couldn't give a greeting to that body without naming an explicit desire and aspiration to welcome the people that I love and care for in ministry," she said.
It was hardly the first time that treatment of LGBTQ people has inspired controversy in the United Methodist Church, where for the past 40 years a fight for equal treatment of the queer community has been taking place.
The Church is governed by the Book of Discipline, which has stated that homosexuality "is incompatible with Christian teaching" since it was amended in 1972 to bar gays and lesbians from candidacy, being ordained or appointed to serve in the Church. The Book also states that "all persons are of sacred worth" and "that God's grace is available to all," and "implores families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends." But in practice, that precludes pastors from performing gay marriages or holy unions, and the Church is forbidden from putting money toward the defense of human rights.
In liberal areas like San Francisco, where the Church's first lesbian bishop, Reverend Karen Oliveto, was elected last July, LGBTQ clergy are tolerated and even celebrated. But any churchgoer can lodge a complaint against openly LGBTQ clergy or LGBTQ allies, which then go before the Church's Judicial Council, which has defrocked several LGBTQ clergy in the past. That's what happened to the Reverend Cynthia Meyer, a lesbian pastor in Kansas, when a complaint filed against her ended with her taking an involuntary leave of absence last August. Meyer's orders were taken away and she was given one year's severance pay due to her sexuality; the same could happen at any point for other LGBTQ clergy. On April 25th, the Church's High Court will hear a complaint against Oliveto's ordination as bishop; as Mother Jones reported, "because there has never been an openly gay bishop before, it's unclear what will happen."
Despite decades of effort to change the Church's rules, little progress has been made, and Church leaders say a decisive split within the community, which consists of more than 12 million members globally, may take place soon.
"Any time I can go to my mailbox and there will be a letter stating that someone has pressed official charges against me," said Reverend Alexandre da Silva Souto, an out queer pastor in New Milfort, Connecticut.
The one way conditions for the LGBTQ community within the Church could change would be to change the Book of Discipline, which can only take place through the UMC General Conference. But that's a limited opportunity that has proven unsuccessful in the past, when committees have been formed and meetings have been held, but nothing has changed.
"The exclusion of homosexuals can be changed, but it needs to be changed through the proper channels," said Souto, emphasizing those channels "have over and over again proven to be closed to any possibility of change."
LGBTQ clergy are finding more visibility within the Church as well, bringing the issue to a boil. Last May, 15 Church leaders came out at the New York Annual Conference, marking the first time a group of Methodist clergy and candidates have come out en masse. Less than one week later 111 clergy came out through an open letter. And at last year's General Conference, following multiple protests by LGBTQ activists and allies, the Commission On a Way Forward was proposed and adopted by the Church's Council of Bishops. It will undertake "a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality, and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church," according to its website. But the Commission, made up of 33 Church leaders from around the world, only includes three people that identify as queer—a disappointment for LBGTQ allies.
"I consider the commission to be a wholly illegitimate body," said Dr. Dorthee Benz, national representative for Methodists in New Directions, a methodist LGBTQ advocacy group. "It has the most token-y token representation from a privileged section of our community; it completely excludes a vast section of our community. It fails utterly to make possible what has been needed for 45 years now, which is negotiation by church officials with LGBTQ people over their status in the church. No other process can legitimately decide our fate."
Suoto also expressed little faith in the Commission. "We're expected to lay all our hopes that it will produce something earth shattering," he said. But he expressed disappointment with how it's been run and managed so far, and little hope that such results would come.
Concerns regarding the UMC's stance on homosexuality go far beyond clergy. Many fear its impact on the youth of the congregation, who Pastor Elyse Ambrose, an associate pastor at Church of the Village, described as "the most vulnerable" Church demographic, is significant.
Ambrose said that in her time as a pastor and in her own academic research, she's "constantly confronted with people who deal with the shame of—I don't believe disappointing God, but not upholding a social standard, some norm that tends to punish people who aren't heterosexual, white, middle class or more."
Unless a significant change takes place within the Church soon, many pastors and Church leaders predict it will divide into two communities: one that supports LGBTQ congregants, and one that doesn't.
"My guess, at least within the US, is that numbers will continue to decline as the church refuses to be prophetic and priestly and pastoral to people in ways that a church is supposed to be," said Ambrose.
Despite stagnation, Ambrose said she has faith in the Church's future. But she expressed surprise in the organization's inability to realize it's on what she considers the wrong side of history.
"I think, in the United States, that the kind of church that discriminates against LGBTQ people is not going to flourish very long," she said. "Nor should it, because I don't believe that has anything to do with the gospel and what Jesus was trying to do in the world. That kind of church is going to die, and I think that's OK ."
Correction: March 30, 2017. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Dr. Dorthee Benz was an employee of the Center for Constitutional Rights.