NEW YORK — The dispute among United Methodists about recognition of same-sex couples lapsed into a doctrinal donnybrook, pitting clergy presiding at gay weddings in defiance of church law against proponents of traditional marriage trying to stop them.
Since 2011, Methodist advocates for gay marriage have been recruiting clergy to openly officiate at same-sex ceremonies in protest of church policy. In response, theological conservatives sought formal complaints against the defiant clergy, which could lead to church trials. One scholar warned Methodists are “retreating into our various camps” instead of seeking a resolution to an issue the church has formally debated since the 1970s.
“At this point, we have kind of come to the place where we know what the brute facts are,” said Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for gay and lesbian Methodists. “Most folks, after 40 years of trying legislative solutions, realize they won’t work. The way forward is to claim what we know to be true. And we’re going to continue doing it in an aggressive way.”
The intensity of the conflict was laid bare during the last several months, when the church tried, convicted and defrocked Frank Schaefer, a Pennsylvania pastor who presided at the wedding of his gay son.
Berryman said the case galvanized Methodists advocating for recognition of gay marriage, increasing donations to the group and traffic on Reconciling Ministries’ online sites. Schaefer has since been traveling the country giving talks and sermons about gay acceptance.
Opponents also stepped up their organizing.
Through statements, videos and conference calls, a theologically conservative Methodist movement called Good News has been pressing church leaders to act when church law, contained in the Methodist Book of Discipline, is violated.
“When people choose to break the covenant that holds us together, there has to be some accountability,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, Good News’ president.
Last month, a new Methodist group formed called the Wesleyan Covenant Network to support theologically conservative Methodists and keep them from leaving the denomination. The meeting in Atlanta drew about 130 clergy and others.
One speaker choked back tears while telling the group his son is considering entering ministry — but not in the United Methodist Church.
“The present atmosphere is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, a retired president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.