After the United Methodist Church, the nation's second-largest Protestant church, voted in February to strengthen its ban on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ members, leaders of Denver’s relatively liberal UMC institutions are bucking the decision and trying to affirm their relationships with the LGBTQ community.
“During the session of this general conference, we had staff and faculty reaching out and working with our students because it was a very traumatic time for them,” says the Reverend Thomas Wolfe, president and CEO of Iliff School of Theology at the University of Denver. “And so we did that, and we continue to do that. Students first.”
The Iliff Board of Trustees unanimously voted on January 31 to affirm full inclusion of LGBTQ members, and Wolfe also issued a statement the day of the UMC vote that it does not affect Iliff’s stance on including LGBTQ+ members, and that Iliff will continue working toward its goal of promoting a diverse, inclusive community. Out of the 207 masters and forty joint doctorate students at Iliff, 30 percent identify as LGBTQ.
While LGBTQ students at Iliff can continue their education with relative peace of mind, that security could vanish after graduation. According to Wolfe, whether they are ordained could depend on the region or individual church in which they want to practice their faith. Some churches may not ask about sexual orientation during the ordination examination process. But some might.
“For the students who are Methodist and seeking ordination, I think there’s sort of an emotional cost. They’re hurt, whether or not they’re LGBTQ+,” says Dr. Theodore Vial, professor of theology and associate dean at Iliff. “Certainly the LGBTQ+ ones are hurt, but almost every student at Iliff is an ally, and it’s not clear that there’s going to be a church for them to get ordained in if they finish their degree.”
Divisive as it’s been, the vote, which occurred during the church’s General Conference, has galvanized members to affirm their stance on the issue.
“People are now mobilized. People are declaring that which they wouldn’t necessarily publicly or emphatically declare. That’s the gift of the General Conference; it’s like a fire has been lit upon everybody,” says the Reverend Dr. Valerie Jackson, senior pastor at University Park United Methodist Church and adjunct faculty member at Iliff.
Jackson explains that the University Park United Methodist Church, while open to all, has always been afraid of publicly vocalizing its commitment to inclusion. Leaders feared that speaking directly about sexuality would scare people away. But the General Conference has changed that, she says. “I live my life in a same-gender relationship. I live it, but I have never verbally spoken it. And now, since General Conference, I’m speaking it. So even for me, it has changed the level in which I am engaged in this fight.”
Senior Pastor Sharon Langfeldt, who identifies as lesbian, says that her church, Christ Church United Methodist, has been a Reconciling Church (one that officially recognizes all sexual orientations and relationships) for a number of years. Langfeldt explains that despite the General Conference’s decision, CCUM leaders will uphold their decision to be as inclusive as possible.
“It’s been a church that has thrown open the doors very wide to be as inclusive as we possibly can be,” says Langfeldt. “We’ve put it on our webpage. It’s very well-known in the church. We have a giant rainbow banner on the side of the building. We just do everything we can to welcome all people.”
Other ordained LGBTQ members of the church say their lives are in limbo. The bishop of the Mountain Sky Conference, which comprises every UMC church in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana, as well as one in Idaho, is Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay bishop in the UMC. In an email to Westword, she wrote that she won’t know how the General Conference’s position will impact her until the Judicial Council (essentially the Supreme Court of the UMC) reviews the decision.
But she’s hopeful: The Judicial Council has deemed similar decisions largely unconstitutional at least twice.
“What was voted in was not an official plan, it was not even found to be fully constitutional by our Judicial Council,” Bishop Oliveto wrote in her email. “This is partly due to cultural differences found in the world-wide church. As LGBTQ+ rights and the acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons has increased exponentially in the U.S., the UMC has grown exponentially outside the U.S. Many of these regions are in a much different cultural place regarding LGBTQ+ persons.”
The next UMC General Conference is in May 2020. Some Methodist churches may choose to separate from the UMC before then, but schisms would prove complicated. According to Dr. Gregory Robbins, an associate professor of history of Christianity and its scriptures at the University of Denver and Anglican Studies director at Iliff, a congregational vote would be required before a split is finalized, and property issues may rise up, as churches belong to the larger UMC. Robbins says separating from the UMC could take considerable time, perhaps years.
“The decision has rocked many of our churches, particularly those that include LGBTQ persons,” wrote Bishop Oliveto. “But I am seeing churches across the Mountain Sky Conference become more vocal in their commitment to be a church that welcomes everyone.”