Vote on LGTBQ issues divides United Methodists in Modesto, around globe

Watch Modesto pastor’s message about LGTBQ issues in Methodist church

Ani Missirian-Wilson, pastor of First United Methodist, discusses her philosophy about LGTBQ issues in Methodist church.
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Ani Missirian-Wilson, pastor of First United Methodist, discusses her philosophy about LGTBQ issues in Methodist church.

Liz Oakes was horrified, she said, as she watched members of her church — represented in 136 nations worldwide — condemn the LGTBQ community.

The openly gay and married minister of pastoral care for First United Methodist Church in downtown Modesto was viewing a live feed of the 2019 special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, held Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.

At the conference, delegates voted 438-384 to approve the so-called Traditional Plan, banning same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy. It was nothing new, really. An article on the website notes, “This means our current statements about homosexuality, same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons have not fundamentally changed.”

Another vote by delegates at the session defeated the so-called One Church Plan, 436-386. That plan would have left questions of LGBTQ ordination up to conferences and same-gender weddings up to local churches and individual clergy, according to the UM News site.

Pastor Ani Missirian-Wilson (left) and Liz Oakes, minister of pastoral care are pictured at First United Methodist Church on 16th street in downtown Modesto, Calif. on Thursday March 21, 2019. Joan Barnett Lee

Oakes knows there are strong anti-LGBTQ views within the church in other parts of the world, she said. But she didn’t realize how much representation that stance had among delegates, even ones within the United States. “I was stunned, I could not believe the vote went that way, and some of the comments people made from the floor,” she said this week. “Just hateful. I was horrified.”

At least one delegate intimated that a gay or lesbian person in the pulpit would be condemned if he or she caused someone else “to stray,” she said. Old Testament stuff — like the pastor would be drowned, she said.

“What struck me was the real hatred, and in a church convention like that,” Oakes said. “It was horrifying that there could be that much hatred and anger” within the church in which she’s found a home.

Pastor Bob Collins talks during the Easter service at Centenary Church in Modesto on Sunday, March 22, 2018. Marty Bicek Modesto Bee file

Bob Collins, pastor of the conservative Centenary United Methodist Church on Toyon Avenue in Modesto, also watched the live stream from the special session. And though his church supports the Traditional Plan, “we came away feeling there were no winners at all,” he said Thursday. It’s sad that there’s such a tremendous divide within the UMC, Collins said, and “comments made all over the place were pretty hurtful and pretty ugly.”

Ani Missirian-Wilson, pastor of First United Methodist, attended the special session and on March 3 talked with her congregation about the votes for the Traditional Plan and against the One Church Plan.

For First United Methodist Church pastor Ani Missirian-Wilson‘s report on the 2019 General Conference, view the video below.

In her report, which was posted on YouTube, she said that Jesus again and again preached against exclusion. He went out of his way to include those who were ostracized, including lepers, prostitutes, slaves, prisoners and the poor, Missirian-Wilson said. “Who are we, 2,000 years later, as a religious community to say these people or those people are excluded from the inclusive nature of the body of Christ?”

Both Modesto UMC congregations are members of the California-Nevada Conference, which is under the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. The bishops of the Western Jurisdiction issued a statement after the special session vote that they choose to continue operating on the One Church Plan and “will continue to be a home for all God’s people, gathered around a table of reconciliation and transformation.”

The Western Jurisdiction has for many years followed the One Church Plan, Missirian-Wilson told The Bee, and has been clear that it will continue to “reach out to full inclusion of all persons in keeping with God’s boundless love.”

Before last month’s special session of the General Conference closed, a motion was passed, 405-395, to request a decision from the UMC’s Judicial Council — its supreme court, as Collins put it — on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan’s legislative petitions. The issue will be addressed by the Judicial Council when it gathers in Evanston, Illinois, April 23-25.

“This means that we don’t yet know what will change and what will not,” the article says. “Anything ruled unconstitutional can be addressed at the next regularly scheduled General Conference in Minneapolis on May 5-15, 2020.”

As it stands now, the General Conference’s decision will not go into effect until next year. The San Luis Obispo Tribune reported that some fear the approval of the Traditional Plan could 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.)

The adopted 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, according to the Tribune.

Oakes said she believes there is a very large contingent in the Western Jurisdiction and other parts of the nation that will not stand for the exclusion supported by the Traditional Plan. “Whether or not that means down the road having two churches, I don’t know. I hope not,” she said.

There are not a lot of LGBTQ people in her church’s congregation, Oakes said, but many First United members have shared that they have sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and parents who are. “We’re just kind of a quiet church, but I think this is giving us a voice. People were horrified (by the vote and comments at the special session) and don’t want people to think we are that church.”

Pastor Ani Missirian-Wilson (right) is pictured during church services at First United Methodist Church in Modesto, Calif. First United Methodist Church

Missirian-Wilson said the beauty of the One Church Plan is its flexibility, letting each church decide what it wants to be. In her report to her congregation, she said, “We need to think less about the construct of the church and more about the fluidity of our discipleship.”

But Collins said the One Church Plan does not work. He cited the Bible’s Book of Judges, and the command to do what is right in God’s eyes, not what is right in one’s own eyes. The plan is not unity, but a prescription for chaos, the pastor said.

Collins said he joins Missirian-Wilson and Oakes in hoping there is not a split in the UMC, but doesn’t see how it could be avoided.

“For me, personally, the General Conference costs the United Methodist Church millions of dollars. There’s a lot of money going into this time that’s not being able to be used for ministry,” he said.

“When we end up this divided, if we are this firm in our beliefs on both sides of the issue, maybe it’s time to become two churches instead of one. Maybe we already are, and if that’s the case, we should stop pretending we are united.”