WATSONVILLE — On Feb. 26, the United Methodist Church (UMC) voted at a global conference in St. Louis, Mo. to further its restrictions on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy.
More than 800 church leaders voted, with 53 percent in favor of the restrictions that would, if upheld, secure the church’s ban on openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clergy, and forbid any clergy from performing same-sex weddings.
Robin Mathews-Johnson, pastor at the Watsonville First United Methodist Church, was present as an observer and advocate for LGBT Methodists at the week-long conference.
“It was devastating,” she said of the decision. “There were a lot of hateful things said, and I know people are wondering what will happen next.”
In 2013, the Watsonville First UMC became what is known as a “Reconciling Congregation.” This designation means that the church remains open and accepting of people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Mathews-Johnson insisted that this will not change.
“This is not going to keep us from moving forward,” she said. “No matter what, we are going to continue to love and accept everyone.”
For decades Methodists have been divided over LGBT issues. Since it is a global church, with a sizable chunk of its members in Africa and Europe, decisions are more complicated. Mathews-Johnson added that states in the U.S. South have recently allied with some of these countries in their negative stance on LGBT rights.
The “One Church Plan,” proposed by the Council of Bishops in 2016, would have allowed individual regions and congregations to make their own decisions on whether or not they allow LGBT clergy or weddings. The Feb. 26 vote rejected the plan.
“It was designed to be a compromise,” Mathews-Johnson said. “But people still could not deal with it.”
Clergy of the UMC have already performed same-sex marriages since they became legal in the U.S. The Western Jurisdiction of the church, which includes California, has declared its support of the LGBT community. The first openly gay bishop, Karen Oliveto, is now serving in Nevada.
“We have made great strides,” Mathews-Johnson said. “There is no way we are going back now.”
In April a judicial council will make a final decision about whether or not the vote is constitutional. This will determine how the UMC moves forward. If not resolved, the issue may split the church in two. This wouldn’t be the first time — in the 1800s, it split over the issue of slavery.
“We obviously don’t want that to happen,” Mathews-Johnson said. “We can’t allow intolerance to divide us once again. ”
Despite the conference’s result, Mathews-Johnson said her experience was a positive one. She described spontaneous meetings held by the Western Jurisdiction as reminiscent of anti-war and women’s rights meetings she had attended in the 1960s. A pastor from Africa who was working to support LGBT youth invited her to visit his church. And she said she had productive conversations with people on both sides of the issue.
No matter the outcome of the decision in April, Mathews-Johnson said she remains fixed in her beliefs.
“Honestly, I don’t care which way they vote,” she said. “Jesus loved everybody, and we follow Jesus — not the church. We’re always going to welcome everyone here.”