Methodists in San Diego and elsewhere face tough questions about LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings

The Rev. Phil Amerson, center, listens during a question-and-answer session Wednesday at First United Methodist Church.
(Eduardo Contreras/ The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In times of turmoil — this week, say — the Rev. Phil Amerson ponders the words of the Methodist church’s co-founder.

“May we not be of one heart,” John Wesley wrote, “though we are not of one opinion?”

Amerson, First United Methodist Church San Diego’s interim pastor, was among local Methodists wrestling with Tuesday’s controversial decision of church delegates meeting in St. Louis. By a vote of 438-384, the General Conference adopted rules banning same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.

“I’m deeply disappointed,” said Amerson. “And I’m especially concerned about the damage this does to gay and lesbian folks in the community.”

Some fear the new rules could also cause a schism in the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination, which trails only the Southern Baptist Convention. (The Methodist church’s 12.6 million adherents include about 7 million Americans.)

“Is there going to be a split?” asked the Rev. Bob Rhodes, lead pastor at Pacific Beach United Methodist Church. “I think we’re closer to that than we ever have been before.”

Among the denomination’s progressive believers, the decision was met with dismay. Amerson, the former president of two Methodist seminaries, this week heard from three men who had been studying to become pastors.

“They wanted to know, ‘How do I leave this denomination?’” Amerson said.

The adopted “Traditional Plan” was championed by theologically conservative delegates from Africa, the Philippines and other parts of the globe, as well as U.S. churches affiliated with the Ohio-based Wesleyan Covenant Association.

Covenant members were not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

The association’s web site links falling church attendance in the U.S. to “the divisive debate over the church’s sexual ethics...”

The Covenant compared this controversy to the Traditional Plan, which, it said, “reaffirms teachings rooted in Scripture and Christian tradition” and “creates new means for maintaining the good order of the church should those means be necessary.”

Under the new rules, ministers who perform same-sex weddings could be punished — the maximum penalty would be a year-long unpaid suspension. Bishops would be required to ensure that gays and lesbians do not enter the ministry.

Critics fear the Traditional Plan could lead to an exodus from the church. Among those who considered this move, at least briefly: Bishop Grant J. Hagiya, the Los Angeles area resident bishop and most senior cleric on the West Coast.

“With this conservative turn, I have been deeply conflicted,” Hagiya wrote late Tuesday. “The question is, ‘can I stay in a repressive and oppressive church with integrity?’

“After a sleepless night, I came to a new resolve. I believe I must stay in the UMC and lead our people within the geographical context we find ourselves in the West.”

Dana Hook, chair of First United Methodist’s church council and a lesbian, had a similar dark night of the soul. “I told my wife, ‘Can we even stay as part of the United Methodist Church’?” she said.

They decided they could, recalling the Mission Valley congregation’s referendum last June. By an overwhelming majority, worshipers voted to welcome LGBTQ members and clergy, plus endorsed same-sex marriage.

Many Methodist congregations have a “big tent” approach, welcoming all without dwelling on members’ sexual identities. Some take a more conservative view, while still others — like Water’s Edge, a Methodist faith community in Ocean Beach — occupy the other end of the spectrum.

“We fly our rainbow flag proudly every Sunday,” said Lysa Edward, who worships there. “I hope that we all come to the conclusion that we are all God’s children and he loves us the way we are.”

This week, Methodist pastors have been inundated with phone calls, text messages and social media queries.

“Folks are confused,” said the Rev. John Shaver, lead pastor at San Dieguito United Methodist Church in Encinitas. “They want to know what this all means.”

Clear answers may not emerge for months. The General Conference’s decision will not go into effect until next year, after it has been reviewed by the church’s Judicial Council. That body can nullify measures that violate the Methodist constitution.

At a Wednesday afternoon gathering at First United Methodist Church, pastor Amerson counseled patience and faith.

“It’s going to be messy for awhile,” he said, “but it’s going to be OK.”

Others, though, wonder if the time for patience is past. In Pacific Beach, pastor Rhodes noted that the church in 1972 adopted a statement that called homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

“We have been enduring this for decades and we’ve been trying to stick it out,” said Rhodes, who identified himself as a “straight CIS man” who supports LGBTQ rights. “The follow-up question is: Why should I stick it out any more?”