An upcoming vote addressing sexual orientation is threatening to splinter the United Methodist Church, which has a huge North Georgia presence and is the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination.
“I and my staff are committed to leading this entire church through this,” said the Rev. Scott Hearn of Gainesville First United Methodist Church earlier this week. “And we want to position ourselves in such a way that we can minister to the entire congregation.”
The church at 2780 Thompson Bridge Road is opening its chapel to prayer during the times of the denomination’s Special Called General Conference, taking place Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.
Mainly, the denomination is considering whether to allow clergy to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies on church property and ordain “self-avowed, practicing” gays.
Of the three most prominent proposals, the denomination’s Council of Bishops recommends the One Church Plan, which would allow churches and pastors to make decisions based on their specific congregations and conferences.
That means that United Methodist pastors would be allowed, but not required, to perform same-sex marriages. But marriages would not be performed in the church unless the congregation votes to approve them before the first ceremony.
The One Church Plan would allow annual conferences — regional United Methodist leadership bodies — to ordain LGBTQ pastors, but an extra bishop would be made available to perform the ordination if the assigned bishop of the conference were to be uncomfortable with the ceremony.
The Traditional Plan would strengthen language in the Book of Discipline, which is regarded as the law and doctrine of the United Methodist Church, to enforce current prohibitions on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. It would also allow conferences and individual churches to leave the denomination.
The Connectional Conference Plan would create three new conferences and each one would serve traditional, moderate or progressive beliefs instead of specific regions.
Or the issue can be put off again.
“We’ve been doing (that) for 40 years,” Hearn said.
The Rev. Rob Bruce, pastor of McEver Road United Methodist Church at 3606 McEver Road, Oakwood, said, “Who knows what’s going to happen, when you get 800 delegates from around the world?”
Whatever is decided will affect a lot of church members.
According to the denomination’s North Georgia Conference, the Gainesville District — one of 12 regional bodies — has 90 United Methodist churches. North Georgia has some 800 churches total, with 350,000 members.
The United Methodist Church was founded in 1968, growing to 11 million members, behind only the Southern Baptist Convention. Present-day language about human sexuality was added in 1972 to the Book of Discipline, which is updated and published after every general conference, held every four years.
After the 2016 General Conference, a group called the Commission on a Way Forward was appointed to study Scripture and come up with plans addressing sexuality in United Methodist churches around the world.
Congregants, clergy and experts have said it’s inevitable that people will leave the church because of how polarizing the issue is. It’s also possible entire congregations could leave the denomination.
For his part, Bruce said he favors the One Church Plan.
“I believe it’s the best plan to keeping the church together,” he said.
Hearn, when asked which plan he supports, said only, “My plan is to lead this church through this entire thing.”
The North Georgia Conference “hasn't focused on a particular plan, because the decision isn't an annual conference decision, but has instead focused on unity in Christ,” communications director Sybil Davidson said in an email.
“We have leaned on a prayer from our shared communion liturgy, ‘May we be one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.’”
The Rev. Alice Rogers, Gainesville District Superintendent, said by email that even though the church conference “is an important event in our church, it's not our most important work.
“In the Gainesville District, we are feeding the hungry, equipping young leaders, opening our homes to foster children, responding to communities along the coast that were devastated by hurricanes last year, and following our call to love our neighbors.
“That is not up for a vote, and that's where our focus will be."
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.