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‘It doesn’t have to be about hate’

April 29, 2019

In many ways, nothing was different at St. John’s United Methodist Church.

As a bright New Mexico sun filtered through the stained-glass windows on Easter Sunday morning, the congregation sang the 1929 hymn “I’ll Fly Away.” The senior pastor spoke gently about the religious holiday, how it was about “making people instruments of hope.” The smiles were friendly, the embraces heartfelt.

Outside the sanctuary, fastened against the red bricks of a high-vaulted structure completed in 1954, two rainbow-colored flags moved to and fro in the light morning breeze, almost as if in response to the music inside. As much as anything, the banners were a symbol, a snapshot, of how a local congregation was navigating its way through potential conflict with controversial religious doctrine.

“There’s so much we have in common for just one issue to pull us apart,” said Chris Seawright, a lifelong Methodist and gay member of the church. “It doesn’t have to be about hate. … I believe in love.”

Though the senior pastor at St. John’s, the Rev. Brad Bennett, said the church has welcomed same-sex couples and LGBT individuals for decades, the decision to more overtly express inclusion comes amid a firestorm within the larger United Methodist Church. The denomination, with more than 12 million members worldwide, voted in February to implement a document called the Traditional Plan, which strengthens bans on LGBT-friendly practices.

Since that vote at the Methodists’ General Conference in St. Louis, the stance of St. John’s, one of two United Methodist churches in Santa Fe, has become much more public, evidenced by the rainbow flags hanging on the building along Old Pecos Trail.

Bennett, who has been at St. John’s for 2½ years, didn’t hang them and said he doesn’t know who did. But he acknowledges the symbolism leaves little room for gray area.

“The bottom line of the Gospel,” he said, “is to love our neighbor.”

For decades, Bennett said, the topic of same-sex marriage and homosexuality has been widely debated within various sects of Christianity, including the United Methodist Church. Nearly every time the topic is presented at Methodist conferences, there’s close to a 50-50 split, which, he said, “indicates a pretty strong divide.”

For his part, Bennett said the Traditional Plan goes “against Jesus’ foundational teaching” and “tears apart the fabric of who we are.”

Nevertheless, in recent years, he said, there’s been a more urgent push for the church to take a final stance on the topic.

The issue came to a head at the recent General Conference, where three proposals were brought to the floor as potential resolutions: the Traditional Plan; the One Church Plan, which essentially would allow individual churches to determine whether they agree or disagree with current rules; and the Connectional Conference Plan, a proposal that would grant certain delegated groups — many of which are state-based — the authority to make a decision for the churches they represent.

The conference, which included representatives from around the world, voted 438-384 to adopt the Traditional Plan, and the church’s judicial council upheld major portions of the document Friday at a meeting in Evanston, Ill.

“There’s a clear division that comes down to how [Christians] interpret Scripture. … The matter of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is driving a wedge,” Bennett said.

“I know people here were concerned they would be excluded after [the General Conference] decision,” he added, referring to gay members of St. John’s. But, he added, “our congregation believes all people are made in the image of God.”

Karen Wells, a lifelong Methodist and a member of St. John’s since 1979, agreed, noting she thinks most of the 150 to 180 active members of the church (there are about 400 members in all) feel similarly.

“It’s not scripturally supportable, especially in the Gospel, to say there’s a line in the sand,” said Wells, a part-time legislative committee analyst and a board member at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center.

The General Conference move left bruises for some at St. John’s. Seawright said he and his husband, Doug Seawright, who both joined the church in 2015, “have never felt isolated or rejected.”

The issue has high-stakes implications on a worldwide level, particularly for the 7 million American members of the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the country.

As Bennett awaited news from the judicial council meeting in Illinois, he said it’s possible that he and his church will undergo drastic changes in the years to come, as some of its members wrestle with what it means to be a Methodist.

Though everything feels “extremely hypothetical” right now, Bennett said, if the church were to uphold the Traditional Plan, it wouldn’t surprise him if more progressive congregations within the denomination chose to break away from the United Methodist Church.

Similarly, he said, if future conferences decided to allow same-sex marriage and conclude homosexuality is constitutional within their doctrine, it wouldn’t be unrealistic for conservative members to branch away and form a new denomination.

Currently, the Traditional Plan includes penalties for those who do not abide by LGBT-related rules and asks church members who disagree with the stance to find another church. Under the policy, if Bennett were to officiate a same-sex marriage, he would be placed on a minimum one-year, unpaid probation. A second instance would cause him to lose his pastorship and essentially be removed from the clergy.

Bennett said he currently is not doing anything against church policy. When he receives requests to officiate same-sex marriages, he said, he must decline and instead offer couples the names of other pastors in town who are willing to officiate their ceremony.

However, Bennett said, if he were allowed to officiate same-sex weddings, he would.

Bennett acknowledged “there’s probably something in the back of my mind that’s a little fearful” of any potential repercussions for this kind of open support for LGBT people.

“Depending on the future, [the church’s stance on LGBT is] always going to be a decision point for me,” he added, noting the church’s eventual decision could lead him to consider leaving the United Methodist Church altogether.

A final resolution, he said, is likely at least one year away. According to the Associated Press, opponents of the Traditional Plan will have a chance to overturn it at the church’s next general conference in May 2020.

“It’s all up in the air from there,” Bennett said.

For now, some congregants at St. John’s said it’s important to ensure LGBT individuals know they are accepted.

“We had people who were deeply hurt by [the conference outcome],” Bennett said of the February vote.

The flags, he added, are just part of alleviating that pain. Gay visitors and others in the community have thanked him for St. John’s public stance. Only one member of the church has expressed “vehement” discontent with his views via an anonymous email.

According to the United Methodist Church, its credo for years has been “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”

Bennett said he’ll be interested to see how that motto plays out in the weeks and months to come.

“As painful as it is to think about, he said, “it’s possible that schism would be a possible outcome.”

Regardless, he said, he believes St. John’s will thrive in Santa Fe — “whether we have the ‘United Methodist’ in our name or not. …

“This people called St. John’s is going to be here,” he said. “We want to the [United Methodist Church] to recognize we welcome everybody and they have significance in the eyes of God.”

New Mexican staff writer Robert Nott contributed to this report.