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United Methodist churches on Long Island bracing for 'divorce'

Pastor Hector Rivera talks about the changes coming

Pastor Hector Rivera talks about the changes coming to the United Methodist Church in his sanctuary at First United Methodist Church in Central Islip on Friday. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The United Methodist Church has been battling internally over gay clergy and same-sex marriage since the early 1970s. Now, a historic split appears imminent — and congregations on Long Island are grappling with how to handle what some are calling a “divorce.”

A group of Methodist leaders on both sides of the issue announced this month a plan that would allow traditionalists who oppose gay clergy and same-sex marriage to splinter off and create a new denomination.

The proposal, which is garnering broad support among both liberals and conservatives in the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States, stands a strong chance of passing at the United Methodists’ worldwide General Conference slated for May in Minneapolis, church experts said.

“The reason why people are acting like it’s a done deal is because it really looks like it is going to pass. It’s got such widespread support,” said Ted Campbell, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The Rev. Thomas Goodhue, a retired United Methodist minister and former head of the Long Island Council of Churches, said, “I think people have just accepted the inevitable. I think one way or the other, we come untied.”

The proposal is leading to wrenching discussions at many of the approximately 80 United Methodist churches in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as the faithful decide which side of the fault line their congregation will come down on.

At the First United Methodist Church of Central Islip, members will gather next month and — under the guidance of an outside pastor — try to decide their future.

The church’s pastor, Hector Rivera, said he favored what he and others called the “centrist” position: openly supporting gay clergy and same-sex marriage, but remaining tolerant to people of all opinions.

“We have progressives, we have traditionalists, we have centrists, and I believe I am pastor to all of them,” said Rivera. “I believe the church can function and can do what it is called to do even amid different political and theological views because I have seen it work in ministry.”

“When we have people that we worship with that are different from us racially, ethnically, politically, theologically, I’ve learned we can be transformed by each other and we can change each other,” he said.

The Rev. Steven Knutsen of the United Methodist Church in Seaford falls into the “traditionalist” camp, and says he does not know which way his congregation will decide.

“I’m a conservative pastor. I believe that our practices are good and I don’t want to change,” he said. “We are called to help shape the world, not be shaped by the world.”

“The congregation knows my viewpoints. Where they go in the future, that will be their decision,” he said.

Pastors typically serve on a year-to-year basis. In theory, if approved the plan could lead to changes in pastors based on which camp congregations join. Rivera said that even if his voted for the traditionalist path, he had offered to stay.

Unlike the Methodists, most mainline Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church now allow openly gay ministers and same-sex marriage. There are 7 million United Methodists in the United States and about 6 million more in Africa, Europe and Asia. Members are as diverse as Hillary Clinton and Jeff Sessions.

The Methodist Church was rocked last February when a vote by a special General Conference in St. Louis approved a new, tougher ban on gay clergy and same-sex marriage. The move exacerbated tensions between traditionalists who argued the ban aligned with historical church teaching and values and progressives who saw it as out of step with the times.

That led a group of 16 Methodist leaders including some from outside the United States to quietly start meeting late last summer to come up with a solution. Their efforts were mediated in Washington, D.C., by Kenneth Feinberg, who negotiated the 9/11 victims fund settlements.

“I think it is the best pathway I have seen for a civil way to acknowledge our need to separate,” said Bishop Thomas Bickerton, head of the United Methodist Church for lower New York and western Connecticut and one of the 16 who reached the agreement.

“I am heartbroken by it because I have worked all my life for the unity of the church,” he said. But “I think it is as good as we can do at this point. We are hopeful that it is going to lessen the controversies in the church so we can get back to the business of what it means to be in mission and ministry.”

The proposal calls for the traditionalist camp, which is expected to form its own denomination, to receive a total of $25 million, and possession of their church property.

Goodhue said he expected most Long Island congregations to remain with the main denomination, which would support gay clergy and same-sex marriage and still be known as the United Methodist Church.

He called the proposal an “amicable divorce.”

Fred Brewington, a well-known civil rights lawyer on Long Island, will represent the New York region at the decisive conference in May. He favors the proposal.

“There is a great opportunity for healthy change so that we don’t regress, but we progress,” he said. “We are about being a progressive body of Christ that moves forward to make sure that … we do what we are called to do, which is to minister to everybody.”

For his part, Knutsen is attending a meeting in Philadelphia this weekend of traditionalists who will discuss their next moves as the church moves toward splintering.

“I pray that our church will maintain its integrity, of relying on scriptural authority and God’s Holy Spirit leading us forward,” he said. But “in order for us to maintain our integrity, we need to step away from those who will not.”

Even if the church splits, some think that will not fully put to rest conflict over the topic. Goodhue noted the complexities within congregations and even individuals.

Some people, for instance, “will say I am all for gay rights but I don’t really want a gay pastor,” he said. Others may say they want to “uphold traditional teachings of the church, but I have a daughter who is gay and I love her and I want the church to treat her right.”

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