On May 10th, more than 100 clergypersons in the United Methodist Church came out of the closet. They did so at great personal risk, knowing that the official doctrine of the UMC says they were in active disobedience of the word of God. Such action is punishable by firing, which for many would mean not only losing their jobs but their homes, as housing stipends are frequently tied to pastorates. But, as many of these pastors told Rolling Stone, the potential change outweighed the risks.
“We have been forced to hide if we wanted to fulfill our call from God to serve in the United Methodist Church,” says Anthony Fatta, one of the 111 pastors who came out in what they called “A Love Letter to Our Church.” “If we want to keep our jobs and provide for our families, we have had to lie. This is unfair and unjust. I cannot shepherd a congregation into finding their full identity in Jesus Christ if I cannot be authentic in my own identity in Christ.”
The timing of the announcement was not accidental. May 11th marked the beginning of the church’s general conference, which meets every four years to discuss the governance of one of the largest denominations in the United States. With over seven million members in the U.S. alone, the United Methodist denomination stands as an important marker in the culture wars, with their internal debates reflecting many of the nation’s wider cultural swings.
The UMC discussions have added significance this year, as the likely Democratic nominee in the upcoming presidential election, Hillary Clinton, is a member. Clinton has attended Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., for a number of years and has been a member of the larger UMC since she was a child. And the current internal church debates could force Clinton to take sides in a parochial church discussion, risking the alienation of millions of American citizens.
In order to understand Clinton’s place in this debate, it’s important to understand what’s happening in the United Methodist Church’s General Conference. The big issue on the table for this year is a seismic shift in theology. Over the past few years, several Methodist ministers around the nation have been pushing for the church to move in a more liberal and affirming direction when it comes to the identities of LGBT parishioners. Official UMC law dictates that while gay or bisexual clergy can serve as pastors, they must remain celibate — and closeted. In April of this year, a bishop in North Carolina was officially warned (and is facing internal church trial) for officiating a same-sex wedding in Charlotte, North Carolina. In years past, several bishops and pastors have come out as affirming, and at least one retired bishop has been sanctioned for officiating same-sex weddings in the church.
Much of this is an internal church struggle; events like these rarely have a wider impact. But because the UMC is Hillary Clinton’s denomination, a church split over this topic could result in a president being forced to pick sides in an internal church battle, making it a national issue. The church split could take effect as early as 2018, which would be midway through Clinton’s first tenure should she be elected in November.
Church splits are not necessarily anything new. Within the Protestant denomination, it’s common to ask “What kind of Baptist?” or “What kind of Lutheran?” because denominational affiliation can quickly and radically change, based on any number of factors — some as petty as what color the pews are in a new church building. But rarely has a presidential candidate or a sitting president been in a position to take sides in a brewing intra-denominational conflict quite like this. The discussion in the UMC may seem a little behind the rest of the nation — after all, we’ve had same-sex marriages in most states for a few years now, and the shifting tide on LGBT rights has been shockingly fast. But churches in general are notoriously slow when it comes to adapting to shifts in the culture, especially if those shifts are in areas explicitly banned within church doctrine.
The UMC general conference has been plagued by calls for unity from all sides, and there have been powerful, moving protests by LGBT clergy. In addition to the pastors openly calling for a sea change in the doctrine of the church, pastors at individual churches struggle with how they personally feel when it comes into conflict with their congregation’s feeling. As a pastor in a rural, red-state area who privately affirms same-sex relationships tells Rolling Stone in an email, “I know that for the sake of faithful ministry with the people God has called me to serve, I will spend a majority of [my time serving the church] in tension between what I can and cannot say without doing harm (one of the three rules of Methodism) to the churches I serve.” (The pastor asked that his name not be used because his views are at odds with the UMC.)
All Methodist pastors are bound by this call to do no harm in their ministry, as well as by a call to serve God and their congregations fully. The church Clinton attends in Washington is bound by similar constraints, but will have to make a decision about which denomination to stay in should the UMC schism happen. In which case, the choice of church Clinton chooses will send a message — either to “traditional” Christian America or to LGBT activists — on her opinions about the full acceptance of LGBT people within the church universal.
It’s a debate the Clinton campaign has not addressed, perhaps because they feel it is not their place. But if the schism proceeds as many have predicted it will, and if Clinton wins the November election, by the time she takes office in 2017 she’ll have to make a decision that could alienate large swath of Americans who are still on the fence about LGBT rights. A world leader taking sides in an internal church debate is a tricky thing in the best of circumstances — over an issue like full acceptance and affirmation of LGBT people as clergy, it’s a minefield.