As the global Methodist church debates how it will handle LGBT rights, First United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara is assuring its congregation that its practices will remain unchanged.
Last Wednesday the church at 305 E. Anapamu St. installed temporary door banners in the traditional LGBT flag colors in solidarity with the LGBT community.
The statement came in response to the decision by the global United Methodist Church to tighten the restrictions on openly gay ordained ministers and recognizing same sex marriages.
Church leaders from all over the world met in St. Louis in February for a special conference on LGBT issues. The delegates voted to adopt the “Traditional Plan” for the church’s Book of Rules, a book of church law and doctrine.
First United Methodist’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Mark Richardson, said LGBT supporters within the church were hoping the delegates would relax church policies or at least make allowances for individual churches to object to the laws.
“Now we’re in the same position we were in. Maybe a little worse,” chuckled Dr. Richardson, who explained that for years the global church has looked the other way as “reconciling,” or dissenting congregations, refused to follow church laws they found discriminated against LGBT members.
He said the new “Traditional Plan” reaffirms the global church’s position on LGBT issues and now makes punishment for disobedience mandatory in some cases.
No matter the consequences, Dr. Richardson says nothing at First United Methodist.
“We had a lot of people who read the news and asked us what we were going to do. That’s why we felt the need to make a statement,” he said, noting the message “God’s Doors Are Open To All,” is written on the colored door banners.
“We have a statement on our website that reaffirms our position as a reconciling church. We just don’t accept this outcome. We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.”
The February decision is the most decisive statement in the church’s 40-year debate on LGBT rights. Dr. Richardson says a schism, or split in the church, is an extreme but possible outcome.
“It seems a good time to say ?Oh, we can’t resolve this issue.’ When pensions and funding gets involved, though, it’s complicated. It would probably take a larger body within the church to break off and that would allow smaller congregations to follow,” he said.
Most American churches oppose the “Traditional Plan, and most churches aboard support it, Dr. Richardson said.
He said he is holding out hope that portions of the “Traditional Plan,” will be stricken by the church’s Judicial Council, which will review the new document from April 23 to 25 to determine if it is “constitutional” by church standards in the Book of Discipline.
“The likely answer is that parts of it are and will be ruled unconstitutional. But no matter what happens, I don’t think they can stop the movement behind this issue.”