University faith leaders grapple with United Methodist Church vote to keep ban on same-sex marriage, LGBTQ+ clergy
“The question is: Do we leave or do we stay and fight?”
The United Methodist Church (UMC) voted to strengthen its opposition to same-sex marriage and ordination of gay clergy on Feb. 26, opening a conversation among AU staff and students about the University’s association with the church.
The vote maintained exclusionary language against LGBTQ+ people in the faith’s book of discipline and added penalties for those who violated those rules around accepting LGBTQ+ clergy and members. Many church leaders have been violating these rules for some time.
The University has been affiliated with the UMC since its founding in the 1890s, and has identified as a reconciling community, or open to those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, since 1994.
“The main disappointment is that the church did not take the opportunity to move towards greater inclusion,” said Mark Schaefer, the university chaplain and director of the Kay Spiritual Life Center. “If anything, it went backward or stalled out.”
Schaefer, who served for 14 years as the University’s Methodist chaplain before taking his current position in 2016, wrote a letter to the university community following the vote expressing his solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community at AU.
“To the LGBTQ+ members of our university community, I cannot know how you must be feeling,” Schaefer wrote. “As a white, straight, cisgender male, my place in the church has long been assured. My grief at the rupture and spiritual failings of my denomination cannot begin to comprehend the grief and alienation that you must be feeling in these moments.”
The reason the vote moved in the direction it did was due to the views of more conservative international chapters, Schaefer said. However, about two-thirds of the U.S. delegation voted for a different plan that would have allowed local churches to choose their stance on accepting LGBTQ+ people within the faith.
Several Methodists have begun to question the value of maintaining a relationship with the UMC rather than breaking off to form a new denomination.
“The question is: Do we leave or do we stay and fight?” Schaefer said.
Elliot Bell-Krasner, a former student leader and AU graduate who remains active in the alumni community, said the University should take “tangible action,” such as prohibiting the church to approve the election of the Board of Trustees, to signal to the UMC that AU disapproves of the decision.
“[AU] should carefully consider its relationship to the general conference and whether or not that relationship benefits the AU community,” Bell-Krasner, who is not Methodist, said. “[AU should] consider the repercussions of this decision on the LGBTQ members of AU’s community.”
Fanta Aw, the University’s vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence, responded to the vote in an email to students about the University’s plan of action.
“We are closely monitoring the outcome, are conferring with leadership from the United Methodist Church and are heartened by the continued strong support for inclusion coming from within the United Methodist Church in response to this vote,” she wrote.
Schaefer said the UMC’s vote is an opportunity for AU to show leadership and move the church forward.
“We have a voice that we can claim to help the church to move into a more inclusive direction,” he said.
Some in AU’s Methodist community are doubling down on their efforts to include LGBTQ+ students in their mission.
“There are glimmers of hope because there are lots of folks looking to ask that question of… ‘How are we going to be an intentionally inclusive church?’” said Joey Heath, AU’s United Methodist chaplain.
Corie Maguigad, the president of the United Methodist Student Association at the University, said the AU Methodist community does not stand for discrimination.
“I want it to be very clear that the AU Methodist community will never not be inclusive,” Maguigad said. “We will always be open to anyone who wants to be a part of our community.”
Maguigad added that some of the younger community members of UMC feel like their voices were not heard during the vote this week.
“The youth of the UMC were not able to voice their opinions,” Maguidad said. “I think it's important to remember that we are the future of the church.”
The United Methodist Student Association hosted a public dinner after Sunday worship to open the conversation to other students and community members about these next steps and to provide a space to support those who identify as LGBTQ+.
Jason Steuerwald, the transgender and nonbinary community coordinator for the LGBTQ+ organization AU PRIDE, said that this moment should be focused on listening to the community.
“It's about community right now and about finding people who are going through the same things or are willing to listen,” Steuerwald said.
As Methodists continue to debate what will come next for the church, Schaefer repeated his support for LGBTQ+ inclusion at AU and elsewhere.
“To the LGBTQ+ community, I can't say that I know exactly the pain that you're going through, but I hear and see and reaffirm you, and care about you,” Schaefer said.