Local churches pause as UMC discusses same-sex marriage decision

Last week, delegates from the United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the country, gathered at the General Conference in St. Louis, Mo., and voted against the One Church Plan. The measure would have given individual churches the flexibility to decide how to handle issues of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.

The church has a book of laws, the Book of Discipline, that works as a moral compass for UMC members and clergy, North Fork United Methodist Church Pastor Tom MacLeod said by e-mail Wednesday. Under current regulations, United Methodist clergy are prohibited from performing same-sex marriage ceremonies and members of the LGBTQ community cannot be ordained as clergymen.

“The current language stipulates that while we commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons … there are prohibitions against any conference that ordains a person who is of the LGBTQIA community and prohibits any clergy from performing a same-sex marriage,” Pastor MacLeod wrote.

Former Southold Methodist Church minister Ben Burns said the decision has yet to be reviewed by the Judicial Council, the highest judicial body of the church, which determines the constitutionality of acts or proposed acts at the General Conference, according to the UMC website.

Under current standards, Pastor MacLeod said, if a member of the Methodist clergy were to marry two people of the same sex within the church, it could result in a trial and possible suspension. It could also result in defrocking, Mr. Burns added, meaning the officiant would be removed from the position.

A recent decision made by delegates from the United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant church organizations in the country, could impact the diversity at North Fork UMC, which includes congregants from Southold, Cutchogue, Orient and Greenport. (Kate Nalespinski photo)

Some North Fork clergy have deemed the decision the first step in a complex conversation about sexuality and the church’s guiding rules.

“It’s really not a done deal, and it may not be for some years,” Mr. Burns said.

The Rev. Enrique LeBron of Riverhead United Methodist Church, who has been a pastor for 34 years, said because the decision was discussed and voted upon only recently, it’s unclear how individual churches will proceed.

“We cannot work independently from the United Methodist,” he said. “We’re going through this process together. We’re only beginning to receive information now, and we’re educating ourselves.”

In coming months, the Rev. LeBron said Methodist clergy ministers will meet with the bishops and delegates who made the decision at the conference. He said the Riverhead church cannot make a statement regarding the decision until then.

Pastor MacLeod, who has been a UMC minister for 16 years, said he’s never married a homosexual couple or been asked to do so.

“As a personal rule over the past five years I will only consider performing a wedding for those who belong to the church,” he wrote.

Looking ahead, Mr. Burns said, some local Methodist churches may want to separate from the denomination if the decision is finalized. But the financial repercussions of such a separation would be significant, he added.

“The national churches are dependent on the local churches for contributions,” he explained. “There are financial ties … the buildings, the resources, all belong to the Methodist church. The Catholic churches work the same way. The local church contributes to the diocese.”

In June 2014, church officials closed Southold United Methodist Church and put it up for sale, citing declining membership and ever-increasing maintenance costs. More recently, Methodist churches in Greenport and Orient were also closed were also dissolved. In the years since, the three formerly independent congregations  have been worshiping together in Cutchogue under the name North Fork United Methodist Church.

Pastor MacLeod said he is concerned about the future of North Fork UMC if the plan that emerged from the General Conference proceeds.

“We don’t want to be perceived as judgmental and unwelcoming,” he wrote.

One of the benchmarks of the denomination is diversity, he said. He fears the decision may remove the diversity of people in the church.

“If any plan is passed, there is a danger that we will lose some of that diversity,” he wrote.

Kenneth Carter Jr., president of UMC’s national Council of Bishops, asked pastors to read a letter he wrote regarding the issue during Sunday services on March 3.

“I pray in this moment for mature spiritual leadership among the clergy and laity of our global church,” he wrote. “I pray that we will move toward the pain and grief, and especially among our members in the LGBTQ community.”

UMC serves the community without discrimination, the Rev. LeBron said, and it will continue to do so regardless of the decision.

“The Methodist church is for everybody in the community — we don’t make exceptions,” he said. “We’ve always been this way and we don’t exclude. We just invite everybody to come closer to God.”

[email protected]