YAKIMA, Wash. — With a split in the United Methodist Church looking increasingly inevitable, Methodists in Central Washington are mostly leaning toward the side that supports marriage and ordination rights regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The denomination’s rules barring same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQI clergy have been a divisive issue among members for decades, but in recent years they’ve also gone largely unenforced. That appears likely to change following a late February vote at a church conference in St. Louis that underlines the prohibitions and strengthens penalties for breaking them, including a one-year suspension the first time a clergy member officiates a same-sex marriage and removal from the clergy for a second offense.
The Rev. Mary Huycke, a Yakima resident and superintendent of the denomination’s Seven Rivers Missional District, which covers Central Washington, attended the conference as the district’s delegate. It was clear to those in attendance that the vote, 438 to 384 in favor of reinforcing the church’s LGBTQI prohibitions, could mean the end of the United Methodist Church as it now functions, she said.
“It was like watching the birth of at least two new forms of the denomination,” Huycke said.
Traditionalists in the 12 million-member United Methodist Church, bolstered by increasing numbers in Africa as well as conservatives in the Philippines, Europe and the United States, showed their strength and exerted their control with the St. Louis vote. But the more progressive faction of the denomination is not some negligible minority. In the United States, which includes more than 7 million church members, 49 percent favor or strongly favor the right to same-sex marriage, according to the most recent Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study, released in 2014. Only 43 percent oppose or strongly oppose the right.
At Wesley United Methodist Church in Yakima, news of the February vote wasn’t well received, said the parish’s pastor, the Rev. Bruce Smith. Yakima is a politically conservative area, and there are politically conservative members at Wesley, but the overwhelming majority favor inclusion, he said.
“Folks are disappointed,” he said. “There’s a variety of viewpoints on the issues in front of us, but the harm that the restrictions are causing for people is disappointing — even for people of more of a conservative bent. Everyone should be welcome at church and the thought that this decision is making it more difficult for everyone to feel welcome is disappointing.”
Smith, who has been at Wesley for six years, said he has not been asked to perform a same-sex marriage here. But he believes he would do so if asked, the threat of suspension notwithstanding.
“If, by every other measure that I would make a decision to do a wedding, it seems appropriate, then I would want to say yes — and then find out what happens from there,” he said.
The majority of Methodist pastors in the West feel that way, Huycke said. In fact, the St. Louis vote has stirred a feeling of righteous rebellion among them, she said. They’re aware the church also split over slavery in the run-up to the Civil War. And they don’t want to be on the wrong side of history if it splits again, regardless of the penalties set forth.
“If it’s done anything it has radicalized the middle,” Huycke said. “Those who were, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I’m not sure what I would do,’ are so offended by the penalties it has become clear for them.”
In recent years, even with the rules in place, the denomination has largely let violations slide. Occasionally a pastor has been tried by the church, as the openly lesbian Rev. Karen Dammann was in 2004 when she worked for the First United Methodist Church in Ellensburg. But in that case, Dammann was ultimately acquitted.
Now with the battle lines so clearly drawn — with traditionalists digging in their heels and progressiveness increasingly willing to flout the rules — the church appears to have outgrown its tacit acceptance of LGBTQI ordination and marriage.
That likely means a split. Just how that will take place and what will emerge thereafter are unknown, Huycke and Smith said. The traditionalist faction, having won the vote, has the structure of the existing United Methodist Church. The progressive faction is made up of several small groups without a well-defined banner under which to march.
“There is no clear organizing group,” Huycke said. “That’s the first step.”
But there are plenty of people working independently and in small groups to figure out next steps. That was clear as soon as the vote totals were announced in St. Louis, Huycke said.
“You catch your breath and you look around to make sure everyone’s OK — because it was not a very safe place for LGBTQI folk, especially not in that moment — and then you say, ‘OK. What now?’”