GREAT FALLS – A recent nationwide vote to uphold a decades-old ban on gay clergy and same-sex marriages in the United Methodist Church has rocked congregations in Great Falls, all of which are led by Karen Oliveto— the church’s first openly lesbian bishop.
“Once you have seen and experienced how beautiful the Body of Christ is when all are included[,] you can’t accept the rejection of some members of the Body,” Oliveto tweeted following the decision.
The vote, taken last February in St. Louis, illustrates the culmination of years of disagreement as to how some claim that church doctrine regarding homosexuality conflicts with the fundamental principles of Methodism.
Policies dating back to 1972 relate how the church “does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching,” yet still “implore[s] families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.”
Churches in Great Falls responded immediately via social media to the recent vote to uphold the ban. Two of three local congregations openly vilified the move.
Reverend Jeff Wakeley, of First United Methodist Church in Great Falls, told MTN he takes pride in serving under Bishop Oliveto and in the Mountain Sky Conference as a whole. He said Oliveto was selected for a reason: because “she had the spiritual gifts and graces and leadership to be bishop.”
He is not alone in his opposition. Another Methodist pastor in Great Falls, Reverend Ginny Bettendorf, told MTN she “wants [the] community to know that all are welcome at Christ United Methodist Church.”
“As our Bishop Karen Oliveto reminds us,” Bettendorf said, “we worship and serve together United in Christ. We value our differences as progressives/liberals, traditionalists/conservatives, and centrists in the Body of Christ, in United Methodism, and in our congregation.”
Supporters of the ban argue that allowing congregations to openly disobey longstanding precedent would delegitimize Methodist doctrine and cause the religion to lose face. Illuminating an ever-pronounced divide that mirrors the approximate 50-50 vote count tallied at the general conference, the Pew Research Center cites that six in 10 Methodists support homosexuality in the church,
“There’s a lot of pushback in our particular jurisdiction and in this conference over the decision,” Reverend Wakeley said.
At the general conference, leaders from across the globe convened to debate the merits of two plans. The Traditional Plan, as it was dubbed, proposed maintaining the status quo, while the One Church Plan, in the words of Wakeley, would have “allow[ed] for each conference […] and jurisdiction the latitude to make the decision for themselves.”
Leaders in St. Louis upheld the so-called Traditional Plan, reaffirming the church’s stance and calling into question what many Methodists had interpreted as a progressive movement within the church. Wakeley said the miscalculation resulted from the sheer geographic span of Methodism. Because the religion is so widely practiced, different jurisdictions have varying interpretations of church doctrine.
“We’re much more open to inclusion of LGBTQ in the western jurisdiction compared to say the southcentral, where they are much more conservative in that way,” Wakeley said.
The church is organized into five American jurisdictional conferences, as well as seven central conferences located in Africa, the Philippines, and Europe. Since February, the more progressive factions within the church have voiced harsh criticism of the move, not only pointing to willful blindness at the repeated appointment of gay clergy, but also alleging improper voting.
Wakeley, for his part, admits the fractioning is nothing new. He compares the issue to how courts interpret the law; church doctrine is subjective. And, like many religions, Methodism is struggling to adapt to changing societal norms and cultural practices.
“All churches are dealing with the fact that we’re always one step behind culture,” said Wakeley. “And so some people look at what the culture does, and [they] say, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to protect ourselves from the culture. We’ve got to protect people from what’s happening.’”
Rather than resisting new lifestyles, Wakeley resolves that his religion should embrace them. Accepting the “several gay couples” already attending First United Methodist Church exists as just one part of that equation. While his congregation has lost members due to their stance, he doesn’t plan on turning anyone away— no matter the consequences.
“Whatever’s done at the general conference is not going to keep us from doing what we do,” Wakeley told MTN. “And in this particular church, First United Methodist in Great Falls, we are an inclusive church.”
“By that, everybody’s welcome.”
West Side United Methodist Church in Great Falls has yet to respond to repeated requests for comment regarding its stance on the inclusion of LGBTQ people and the general conference vote. The congregation’s pastor, David V. Odell, also serves congregations in Simms and Sun River, neither of which have acknowledged MTN’s inquiries with respect to the matter.
While the national debate continues, both Wakeley and Bettendorf will continue making deliberate attempts to reinforce the Hamiltonian refrain of Bishop Oliveto: that “Love is love is love.”