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Methodists in crisis

Gay marriage, church law conflict for many

FILE - In this Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013 file photo, former United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer speaks with reporters after a news conference at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia. United Methodist church officials have defrocked Schaefer, who officiated his son's gay wedding in Massachusetts. The dispute among United Methodists over recognition of same-sex couples has lapsed into a doctrinal donnybrook, pitting clergy who are presiding at gay weddings in defiance of church law against proponents of traditional marriage who are trying to stop them. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

FILE - In this Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013 file photo, former United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer speaks with reporters after a news conference at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia. United Methodist church officials have defrocked Schaefer, who officiated his son's gay wedding in Massachusetts. The dispute among United Methodists over recognition of same-sex couples has lapsed into a doctrinal donnybrook, pitting clergy who are presiding at gay weddings in defiance of church law against proponents of traditional marriage who are trying to stop them. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

NEW YORK — The dispute among United Methodists over recognition of same-sex couples has lapsed into a doctrinal donnybrook, pitting clergy who are presiding at gay weddings in defiance of church law against proponents of traditional marriage who are trying to stop them.

“At this point, we have kind of come to the place where we know what the brute facts are,” said Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for gay and lesbian Methodists. “Most folks, after 40 years of trying legislative solutions, realize they won’t work. The way forward is to claim what we know to be true. And we’re going to continue doing it in an aggressive way.”

The intensity of the conflict was laid bare over the last several months, when the church tried, convicted and defrocked Frank Schaefer, a Pennsylvania pastor who presided at the wedding of his son to another man. Berryman said the case galvanized Methodists advocating for recognition of gay marriage, increasing donations to the group and traffic on Reconciling Ministries’ online sites. Schaefer has since been traveling the country giving talks and sermons on gay acceptance.

Opponents have also stepped up their organizing. Through statements, videos and conference calls, a theologically conservative Methodist movement called Good News has been pressing church leaders to act when church law, contained in the Methodist Book of Discipline, is violated. “When people choose to break the covenant that holds us together, there has to be some accountability,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, Good News’ president.

Last month, a new Methodist group formed called the Wesleyan Covenant Network to support theologically conservative Methodists and keep them from leaving the denomination. The meeting in Atlanta drew about 130 clergy and others. One speaker choked back tears while telling the group his son is considering entering ministry — but not in the United Methodist Church.

“The present atmosphere is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, a retired president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky who helped organize the Wesleyan Covenant Network. “We are a divided church already.”

Thomas Frank, a Wake Forest University professor who specializes in Methodist history and governance, wrote an open letter to the church’s bishops, urging them to end the trials. He warned that Methodists have been “retreating into our various camps” and were in desperate need of an open conversation.

Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has called same-gender relationships “incompatible with Christian teaching” and has banned clergy from taking actions contrary to that position: No ordinations or clergy appointments are allowed for “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” No “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions” are permitted in churches. No clergy can preside at the ceremonies no matter where the events are held.

The church has also declared itself “dedicated to a ministry of Christ-like hospitality and compassion to persons of all sexual orientations” and has committed to supporting “certain basic human rights and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation.”

Theological conservatives see no inconsistencies among those positions. Advocates for gays and lesbians do. They have debated at every national legislative meeting, or General Conference, for four decades with the same result: the “incompatible” language — and the related prohibitions — have stayed.

Frustration over the lack of change fueled the new movement to openly defy church law, starting in 2011 in Minnesota and New York. Methodist ministers had already been quietly officiating at same-gender ceremonies in some communities for years. A few of the more publicly defiant clergy had faced formal complaints or had been tried by the church. But the public marriage pledges brought new energy to the campaign.

By the spring of 2012, when General Conference had gathered in Florida, more than 1,100 clergy had signed on. But within the legislative meeting, delegates were unmoved. The conference once again voted to keep the status quo.

“I declare to you that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience,” Talbert told the cheering crowd. “I call on the more than 1,100 clergy who have signed the pledge to stand firm on their resolve to perform marriages among same-sex persons, same-sex couples, and to do so in the normal course of their pastoral duties, thus defying the laws that prohibit them from doing so.”

He called the weddings “an act of biblical obedience” to the teaching that all people are created in God’s image. Dorothee Benz, of Methodists in New Directions, a New York advocacy group spearheading the gay marriage drive, said, “that language of biblical obedience became a messaging touchstone.”

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