A new, tougher ban on gay clergy and same-sex marriage has divided the United Methodist Church so sharply that the denomination is in danger of splintering, something that could tear apart dozens of congregations across Long Island.
The vote by the General Conference is evoking strong feelings on both sides: Traditionalists argue the ban aligns with historical church teaching and values, while progressives see the policy as clearly out of step with the times.
On the Island, there are about 80 Methodist churches attended by several thousand members, the church's New York Conference estimates.
A sampling of local Methodists show they, too, are at odds: Some are sorely disappointed in the church, the nation's third largest with 7 million members, and are struggling with whether to join another denomination or to form a new one. Others are determined to stay and fight the policy, put in place nearly 50 years ago but strengthened just weeks ago by the church's international governing body. Still others support the ban.
“It’s almost like the American Civil War, where brother fought against brother,” said the Rev. Charles Ferrera of the United Methodist Church of Patchogue.
“If I didn’t abide by this, it would be like me going into Yankee Stadium in the Yankee dugout wearing a Boston Red Sox shirt," said Ferrera, who considers himself a traditionalist. “Having said that, I am also very much aware of people who are hurting as a result of that vote. Nobody is excluded in this congregation … regardless of who they are.”
Today, most mainline Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church allow gay ministers and same-sex marriage. And there are Methodist churches more liberal on social issues that defy what the church calls its "Traditional Plan." The policy states homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity.
At a special General Conference last month in St. Louis, progressives lobbied to replace the old policy with one that would have let pastors and regional conferences decide whether to allow gay ministers and same-sex marriage. Conservatives stood their ground, building a coalition of delegates from the southern United States and delegates from Africa, where homosexuality is illegal in many countries.
The traditionalists prevailed, 438 to 384.
One of the conference's delegates was Frederick K. Brewington, a Hempstead-based civil rights lawyer who is also a Methodist lay leader. He ended up giving his delegate position to a gay layperson.
For Brewington, the meeting included "a lot of disappointment and a good amount of hurt.”
“There’s a real need for unity," he said. "However, there appears to be a portion of the United Methodist Church that cannot wrap their Christian arms around their LGBTQIA brothers and sisters. And that’s disturbing.”
The backlash to the ban leaves church historian Ted Campbell hard-pressed to see how the church stays together.
“We are divided and we are just waiting to see what visible forms the divisions take,” said Campbell, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I can’t see a way out of it."
In a pastoral letter to New York's Methodists, Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton wrote that the vote “has caused a great deal of pain and harm to many on both sides of the aisle.”
Many pastors are caught in the middle — laboring to keep their flocks together, negotiating how to welcome the LGBTQ community and still abide by the policy.
The Rev. Hector Rivera has two congregations, a more progressive one in Hauppauge and a more traditional one in Central Islip. He already has a couple of families who are threatening to leave if the church is open to the LBGTQ community.
Rivera and his wife, Yvonne, are trying to figure out themselves whether to stay — because they oppose the ban.
The church, he said, “has to open its doors. If not, they are going to lose young people, which is already happening … because of things like this, because of bigotry and discrimination.”
At Centerport United Methodist Church, the Rev. Roy Grubbs hears a range of views from his members, though most support gay clergy and same-sex marriage. He has had to persuade some to stay to see what comes of the debate.
“Even though the United Methodist doctrine and polity right now states that all people are welcome, when something like this … comes down, it’s very hard for anyone to feel welcome,” he said.
Ferrera, the pastor in Patchogue, believes the answer to a policy dispute isn't leaving the church.
“I think people should remain,” he said. “Just as we work things out in the family, we need to work things out in our church family.”