A quick flick of your Google fingers and the search term “United Methodist Church and same-sex weddings” will tell you much in the way of how difficult it is for the organization as a worldwide body to come to terms with what to do doctrinally about LGBTQ+ issues.
But it came to a head last February when, at the denomination’s global general conference, the United Methodist Church strengthened a ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings, adopting the so-called “Traditional” plan that includes harsher penalties for breaking its rules.
The vote was 438-384.
Also up before the delegates at that time was the One Church Plan, which allowed individual churches to decide whether to perform same-sex marriages and accept gay and lesbian clergy members. It also would have eliminated language in the church’s doctrine that said homosexuality was at odds with the Bible.
That plan was rejected. The fallout from the general conference has included discussion on both sides of the theological fence regarding leaving the denomination altogether and has even led the United Methodist Church’s South Central Jurisdictional Conference to sue SMU over the university’s move to redefine its relationship with the church.
But at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 29, it both mattered and didn’t matter to the 250 or so couples and observers who gathered in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in downtown Dallas.
They were there to renew their wedding vows.
It mattered because, for some, it was the first chance they had gotten to say those vows in a church — and they were saying them in a church whose global governing body has refused to provide wedding rites to same-sex couples.
But it also didn’t matter — from the opening refrain of the hymn “Joyful, Joyful,” to the poetry in the benediction, it was, as one attendee said, “was about joy and love.”
Earlier that month, the church had extended the invitation for the evening service to all married couples — emphasis on the all.
“While this event directly addresses an issue that is emotionally and politically charged, this service itself is a pastoral moment,” Andy Stoker, the church’s senior minister, wrote to church members earlier in the month “This service is a chance to reconnect with our Methodist beliefs and to recognize the beauty of sacred covenants.”
“While this event directly addresses an issue that is emotionally and politically charged, this service itself is a pastoral moment.” — Andy Stoker
“While making a demonstration of our commitment to inclusion is important, our first duty is to ensure all understand and appreciate the connection to our Methodist theology and what the commitment in marriage means for their own spiritual lives,” he added.
The service was one step of many the church has taken since the days following the decision at General Conference, steps that included informational sessions, the formation of a commission tasked with listening to members and assisting in crafting the church’s response, and listening sessions.
That night, though, as couples faced each other to recite their vows again, the moment was beautiful. Quiet voices repeated vows. Couples giggled as someone flubbed a vow, onlookers wiped quick tears, and couples quickly hugged and kissed after completing their vows.
There wasn’t a dry eye, or an unsmiling face, to be found.
During his homily, Stoker said that December had been a bumper crop of weddings and some of them had him reflecting as he began writing his sermon for the evening’s service.
Just immediately after Sunday’s renewal service, he told the crowd, he would rush downstairs to the chapel to perform a wedding between a Christian woman and a Jewish man. Earlier in the month, he had officiated at a wedding between an American man whose family came from Ethiopia and a woman with Swedish-Irish roots, and a man and woman who had been married, divorced, and then wanted to renew their vows again.
All of those marriages, he pointed out, were at one time frowned upon or were even illegal. Perhaps one day, same-sex marriages held at a Methodist church, officiated by Methodist ministers, would also be accepted.
It was a refrain that several visiting ministers picked up during brief toasts and blessings held at a reception after the service.
“It should be our new normal as Methodists,” Eric Folkerth, senior minister at Kessler Park United Methodist Church, said of the service. “To call it remarkable gives oxygen to the Traditional plan.”
“This remains my denomination of choice,” said Northaven United Methodist Church’s Julie Reeves, who attended with her wife of 22 years. Reeves represented Northaven on behalf of senior minister Marti Soper.
Reeves acknowledged that the newer penalties, which go into effect on Jan. 1, will make things hard for church members like her.
“We face a challenging year,” she said.
Royal Lane Baptist Church senior pastor Michael Gregg came with a letter from his church, offering not only warm wishes but also said that “no pastor should be forced to choose” as Methodist ministers are. Royal Lane belongs to the Alliance of Baptists, not the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention.
In the letter, the church offered the use of its sanctuary, as well as any assistance needed from its clergy, to help those who wished to be married but couldn’t at their own church.
Other ministers who attended included Amos Disasa of First Presbyterian Dallas, Patrick Littlefield of Lakewood United Methodist, Casey Shobe of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, Blair Thompson-White of Arapaho United Methodist, Jonathan Grace of Grace United Methodist, and Mike Baughman of University Park United Methodist.
Neil Thomas, senior pastor at Cathedral of Hope, acknowledged that there have been people quietly rebelling for some time, and praised the step the downtown church had taken. He also remembered when the Supreme Court made its landmark ruling regarding same-sex marriage in 2015, that they often had to find ways for willing Methodist ministers to take part in ceremonies, without running afoul of the restrictions on them.
“It seems we have some rebels here, too,” he said. “But there is still more yet to be done.”