The United Methodist Church (UMC) has officially voted to exclude LGBT+ clergy members and marriages from its affiliation, following the passage of the church’s Traditional Plan. The Plan was passed at a special session of the General Conference in St. Louis, MO during the last week of February, where delegates from congregations across the world gathered to vote on the landmark legislation. As a church-related school, Willamette has joined the rest of the Methodist world in reacting to the news, affirming that LGBT+ members and clergy will always be welcome at the institution, yet remaining committed to the relationship with the church.
According to University Chaplain Karen Wood, discussion over the exclusion of LGBT+ folk began two years ago at the UMC’s General Conference in Portland, OR when delegates requested that their bishops offer leadership in making an official decision about LGBT+ clergy. Bishops complied, creating a commission to look into the matter and setting the special meeting date in St. Louis for February of 2019.
By the time the conference arrived, the commission had come up with three plans: the Traditional Plan, which removes freedom of sexuality, the One Church Plan and the Simple Plan, both of which increased freedom of sexuality and religious interpretation. The Washington Post reported that the Traditional Plan was voted in with 53 percent of vote, out of a group of 800 delegates. However, the Plan currently sits in church judicial review, with a final answer expected to be released in May.
Although the Plan technically extends to Methodist congregations around the world, many Methodists have come out in opposition of the UMC’s legislation.
“We are not advocating for the status quo,” said the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC in a FAQ sheet given to members. The Western Jurisdiction, which encompasses congregations in the western part of the United States, also includes WU. “Many in the rest of the United States are looking to [us] to lead and we intend to do that.”
As Wood explained, this anti-LGBT+ sentiment perpetuated by the church is not new, and neither is the advocacy against it. “There have been pastors brought up on charges for disobeying the [religious texts] and marrying same-sex couples,” she said. “They might take away their ordinations [if they protest the Traditional Plan]. Lots of Methodist clergy who are queer have given up their ordination in protest… it is a conflict that has been going on for a very long time.”
Willamette has also spoken out against the decision in a general statement sent out by President Steve Thorsett on Feb. 27. “I want to assure all members of our community that we remain steadfast in our commitment to full inclusion of LGBTQ students, faculty and staff at Willamette,” Thorsett wrote. “I grieve for the LGBTQ members of the church, who have endured the pain of these last few days, as delegates debate their humanity. I share their anger and disappointment in the outcome of that debate.”
As a church-related school, Willamette is accredited by the UMC and is regarded as the oldest Methodist-affiliated school in the West. According to the school’s mission statement as of 2015, “Willamette University… honors its roots in the United Methodist Church and values the ethical and spiritual dimension of education.” Despite this relationship, however, WU remains secular in nature.
“What that [relationship] means is that academic freedom is paramount and everyone’s ability to carry every belief system or lack of belief system is honored and encouraged. There are chaplains and there’s a religious studies department, which you can also find at completely non-religious schools,” said Wood. “Methodism rose out of the university context in England, so it’s very education- friendly, and that’s how WU has continued to be.”
Additionally, three members of the Board of Trustees are appointed by the UMC, and some funding is given to Methodist students’ for financial aid. Wood is the University’s first ever non-Methodist Chaplain.
The UMC’s decision also comes at a crucial time for the budding relationship between Willamette and Claremont School of Theology (CST). The Methodist-affiliated theological graduate school, which has been located in Claremont, CA since 1957, approached Willamette in 2016 with the proposal to move the campus to Salem.
“President Thorsett gathered a group of faculty and administrators to begin talking about it, to look at CST and its character as a school, to consider our compatibility, etc.” said Stephen Patterson, Professor of Religious Studies. Currently, the proposal is in the due diligence process, meaning the situation is being carefully reviewed by lawyers and accountants, but the transition is expected to be approved and begin in fall of 2019.
CST is one of the few stand-alone seminaries in the United States, drawing students from across the world and currently enrolling 400 total graduate students total. According to Patterson, students, faculty and administration currently living in Claremont will move to Salem. Academic classroom space is still being negotiated, and the most pressing issue at the moment is how CST’s library will be integrated into the Hatfield Library’s current collection. However, it can be expected that the merger will go through and CST will be fully incorporated into WU by fall of 2021.
As an exceptionally progressive theology school, CST has been a strong advocate for UMC recognition of same-sex ordinations and marriages since long before the Traditional Plan was passed. Both Patterson and Wood see this advocacy as a parallel to Willamette’s values, and consider the UMC vote to be a reinforcer of the relationship between the two schools.
“If either of us embraced the Traditional Plan, that would be a dealbreaker, but we are completely in alignment with each other,” said Wood.
Currently, the future of the UMC is in speculation, with the Traditional Plan still under judicial review. Disaffiliation is also an option for regions like the Western Jurisdiction, as per another piece of legislation passed at the General Conference, which laid out the procedure for officially leaving the church. However, nothing will be definite until the Plan leaves judicial review in May.
“They’ll continue to affirm LGBT inclusion and same sex marriage until it becomes clear that the Traditional Plan is passed, and then they’ll regroup,” said Wood of the Western Jurisdiction. “Right now, they’re being defiant, saying this isn’t right, and this isn’t Methodist. It’s unmethodist in that it’s not taking into account what we know from reason and experience about LGBT folk in the church.”
Patterson, on the other hand, is more confident that the official passage of the Plan will result in a split in the church.
“The Western Jurisdiction will create their own organization,” he said. “Some jurisdictions will join them and some will not.”
Either way, Willamette and CST will both continue to be a part of the Western Jurisdiction.
In Thorsett’s statement to the Willamette community, he indicated that Willamette is not considering leaving the UMC. “It is a time when it would be easy for a loosely-affiliated school like Willamette to back away from the UMC and the debate that is tearing it apart, but I think that would be a mistake,” he said. “Indeed, now is the time that the UMC, its Western Jurisdiction, and especially its many LGBTQ members need us and the other affiliated universities the most, to be the voice for those Wesleyan values that shaped Willamette’s own values, that every human being is worthy of respect, dignity and love.”
Wood agrees. “It’s too soon to talk about leaving, and you always have the choice of staying in an organization that you want to change, or leaving,” she said. “Our experience with the UMC in the United States and in the Western Jurisdiction in particular is queer-friendly and justice-minded and so are we. So why would we bail? As long as we are in a relationship with a church that is openly affirming and inclusive of all people, we will continue to be related to that church.”
Wood also mentioned that her door is always open to any students who want to “talk this through and have a conversation about God’s inclusive love for everybody, and how that looks for your life and for the Methodist church.”