The New Paltz United Methodist Church (NPUMC) took a stand against homophobia following a recent anti-LGTBQIA+ decree from their church’s global governing body.
On Feb. 26, the General Conference, UMC’s main governing entity, adopted a policy that persecutes openly gay clergy members and prohibits same-sex marriages. NPUMC has made it clear that they will not abide by the Council’s agenda.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said NPUMC Pastor Jennifer Berry. “It is contrary to everything it means to be Methodist and it does great harm to not only to our denomination, but also Christianity.”
In 1939, the American Methodist Church became divided between Northern and Southern worshipers over the issue of slavery. It wasn’t until 1968 that the faith was reunited under the revitalized title: the United Methodist Church. This issue could potentially threaten the unity of this Christian sect yet again. Berry describes the current conflict as a “proxy war” where the LGBTQIA+ community is being used to determine who will control the future of the church.
“This is not actually a fight over LGBTQIA+ people,” Berry said. “This is a culture war and we are using their community’s bodies and souls as the battleground.”
According to Berry, the NPUMC has been outspoken supporters of the LGBTQIA+ community for at least the past seven years. They are members of a “reconciling congregation” movement, which supports the inclusion of different sexual orientations and gender identities into the church.
Berry suggests that the church’s change from an “inclusive” to a “reconciling” congregation came after Pastor Fred Phelps’— from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan— hateful protests against New Paltz’s LGBTQIA+ tolerance. The NPUMC wanted to take a strong stance against bigotry. After all, New Paltz itself has been a bastion of social progress for a number of years, with former Village Mayor Jason West marrying 25 same-sex couples illegally in 2004.
The adopted policy is called the “Traditional Plan,” which upholds pre-existing guidelines within the UMC’s Book of Discipline. This book sets laws, plans and processes to govern the church, and also allows them to amend and perfect the rules when necessary. It contends that homosexual behavior is sinful and that clergy cannot perform same-sex marriage or have active gay or lesbian relations.
The “Traditional Plan” goes a step further in mandating punishments for clergy members who do not conform to the guidelines. A member of clergy who conducts a same-sex marriage are placed on probation for a year, whereas two-time offenders risk losing their clergy status altogether.
In a 438-384 decision, the General Conference denied the UMC Council of Bishops on a more lenient proposal: the “One Church Plan.” These provisions are far less stringent, giving regional UMC districts the power to decide on gay clergy and individual congregations the right to decide on their same-sex marriage polcies.
“The message that [the UMC] actually sent was that God and Jesus are exclusionary, support emotional violence and show compliance to outdated ideas,” Berry said. “When you put all of that together, it says that people are right to believe that we don’t need faith anymore.”
While the NPUMC currently has no openly homosexual clergy, or performed any same-sex marriages, they hope to pave a path to a future where they can implement the inclusivity they strive for.
Although some have hinted at a brewing schism within the church, any predictions of the UMC’s future actions are pure speculation at this point. A schism presents a laundry list of complications when you consider the pension funds, missionaries and other charitable global branches of the church that will be disrupted. The UMC’s Judicial Council could rule the “Traditional Plan” unconstitutional, but the impacts of such a decision still remain unknown. Despite any outcomes, the NPUMC’s position remains firm.
“[We] have taken a leadership position on this issue,” Berry said. “We’re not going anywhere and we’re not going to change our position of inclusion.”