Oklahoma Methodists join historic gathering over gay rights in the Church
As United Methodists gather to discuss the future of gay people in the church, the Rev. Linda Harker, of Norman, believes "the world is watching us."
"I wonder if they are watching earnestly for what we will decide, or if they are watching to see how we as Christians will treat one another in the process," Harker said. "My prayer is that the world will see Christ's love reflected in our words and action."
Harker's remarks came shortly before she boarded a plane for St. Louis, Missouri, where Methodists are gathered for a special General Conference session at the Dome of the Americas. The General Conference meeting began with prayer on Saturday. Discussion and voting on the issue of gay rights in the Church is expected to begin on Sunday and continue through Tuesday.
Harker, senior pastor of McFarlin United Methodist Church in Norman, is leader of a 14-member delegation from the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference and Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. According to Harker, every delegate she has spoken with has received numerous emails and letters from Oklahoma Methodists and beyond, as people voice their opinions about the direction the denomination should take in the coming days.
It is understandable, she said, "because these decisions will affect people in the deepest part of their lives."
Three plans are up for consideration at the meeting.
One, the Traditionalist Plan, will maintain language in the denomination's Book of Discipline that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
Another proposal, called the One Church Plan, would allow individual churches and clergy to decide on gay weddings and Methodist conferences (regional jurisdictional bodies) to decide on the question of gay ordination.
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The third plan, the Connectional Plan, would set up three "connectional conferences" that regional governing bodies like the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference would be able to join. Local churches could choose to follow their regional governing body or join another one based on the policy toward gay church members.
Whatever Methodists gathered in St. Louis decide, the decision will rank right up there with two other momentous decisions in the history of the Church, some Oklahoma delegates said.
Bill Junk of Edmond, one of the lay delegates, said he is ready for the denomination to vote on the matter because it has put the issue off at previous meetings.
"I think it's as historic a time in the life of the Church as it was when the Methodist Church joined together with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968 and the more significant time before when the north and south branches of the Church rejoined after separating over the slavery issue," said Junk, who is president of the Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation and a member of Edmond's New Covenant United Methodist Church.
"This time, we think, the process is set up for us to resolve the (gay inclusion) issue."
The Rev. Bob Long, senior pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist in downtown Oklahoma City, said no matter what delegates decide, the consequences will potentially be significant.
"Hopefully, we can figure out how we can love one another and carry on our mission for Christ even if we don't always agree," he said, adding that he's ready for Methodists to decide the matter and move forward.
"There's also the chance that we will get in there and nothing will happen," Long said.
"How frustrating would that be to bring 864 people together for four days and spend between $3.5 and $4 million and accomplish nothing? We need to get something decided and move on. It will be healthy for the Church because for the last couple of years, some churches and agencies have been in a holding pattern."
"The Church has been unable to focus on the main thing which is making disciples, reaching the lost and the least and spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ," he said.
"There are some people who are going to be disappointed. There's just no middle ground to it because there's just such polarization. I just hope the community will pray for us."
'We're not going to panic'
Indeed, prayer vigils are planned at United Methodist churches throughout the metro and state, including New Covenant, Junk's church, along with Acts II Methodist Church in Edmond and Norman's McFarlin Methodist where Harker is leader.
The Rev. Jimmy Nunn, bishop of the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference and Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, said he and other Methodist bishops will attend the gathering to preside and maintain unity.
He said he has tried to be a calming influence in the months leading up to the General Conference session.
"We're not going to panic," Nunn said. "We're not going to bash people who disagree with us. There are just different world views so this a test of United Methodism for what perspective rules out."
Meanwhile, the Rev. Trina Bose North, senior pastor of Crown Heights United Methodist Church, said she will be in St. Louis as part of the Reconciling Ministries Network of Methodist churches that are open and affirming to the LGBTQ community.
She described the network as “an organized voice of decision, a voice for change.”
“Right now, my hands are tied: I cannot perform a gay marriage and stay within the bounds of the Church,” she said. “I feel like we are not fully living out inclusion and equality.” Like Junk and Long, North said she hopes some decision is made at the historic gathering.
“I feel like we need this time to take the pulse of where we are as a denomination,” she said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We just need to go and take that first vote.”