ROGERS PARK — In a David vs. Goliath battle for a small church in Rogers Park, a new banner hangs outside the church that reads: “We support the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ and ALWAYS WILL.”
After a conference of United Methodist churches decided to tighten their laws to exclude LGBTQ members from marriage and ordination, the leaders of the United Church of Rogers Park are refusing to back down.
It’s not a new battle, pastor Lindsey Long Joyce said — United Methodist churches have been fighting over the inclusion of LGBTQ members for decades. But last week the issue came to a head at a special conference in St. Louis meant to address the issue once and for all.
Within the church there are two factions, known as the traditionalists and the progressives, Joyce said. Two plans were presented at the conference in St. Louis which hosted United Methodist leaders from around the globe.
The first, called the One Church Plan, would have allowed individual churches to dictate how to handle sexuality within the church, specifically regarding marriage and ordination. The plan was narrowly defeated on Monday.
Instead, the church voted to pass The Traditional Plan in a vote of 438 to 384 — despite several high-ranking members urging the church to reconsider.
Joyce said in her eyes the plan should have been called a “hetero purity plan.”
“Our denomination failed to protect the marginalized people in our churches,” she said. “This plan denies the fullness of who [people are].”
Joyce’s church held a special rally on Wednesday that was attended by other members of several United Methodist churches on the North Side. They allowed visitors to share their feelings and fears following the new decree.
One man shared his experience growing up as a gay black man within the church. He said he had attempted suicide on three separate occasions during his teenage years, but had since found acceptance and community at the United Church of Rogers Park.
Another man said he had only recently felt comfortable coming out as a gay Methodist a few years ago in his mid-fifties. He said the recent decision by the church to exclude LGBTQ members from marriage and ordination felt like a huge set-back.
“This is a place to be mad as hell,” said Pastor Britt Cox on Wednesday from the Church of the Three Crosses in Old Town.
Cox attended the conference in St. Louis and said it is not yet clear how the ruling will affect defiant churches going forward. But there will likely be sanctions on churches and clergy who do not follow the new Traditional Plan.
She said clergy will have to sign a document saying they will not ordain any person who is openly gay. The Traditional Plan also explicitly defines marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. Cox said clergy will be expected to punish those who do perform wedding ceremonies for LGBTQ people.
“There is a big fear now looming with these increased penalties,” she said.
Joyce said her church is inclusive and representative of the neighborhood. She said LGBTQ people lead from the pulpit, serve on committees and run worship.
“The majority of our leadership team is queer,” she said.
She said her church is hopeful because their region’s bishop, Sally Dyck, supports the inclusion of LGBTQ people.
Dyck said the council of Bishops recommended the more progressive One Church Plan, but no church would have been forced to perform marriages or ordinations.
But the vote came from United Methodist churches from around the globe, many from areas of the world where it is still illegal to identify as LGBTQ.
“I am very disappointed and sad that this happened,” Dyck said. “I will do whatever I can to make sure that we can be as open and welcoming to people in our communities as possible.”
Dyck said what further saddens her is that the ruling communicates to people around the country “offensive judgement” from the United Methodist Church.
“I think it makes it hard to convince people that most of our churches are very welcoming of LGBTQ people and their families,” she said.
Dyck oversees all the United Methodist churches in Chicago and the top third of Illinois. She said she has seen many of her churches “draping everything in rainbow flags.”
One of the mottos of the church is to “do no harm, do good and stay in love with God,” a motto Dyck said she thinks is in contrast with the new regulations against LGBTQ people.
One of the biggest sponsors of the tightened regulations is Rob Renfroe. Renfroe is a pastor based in Texas. He has written books and been one of the most vocal supporters of the Traditional Plan.
Renfroe said the church has had a traditional position on sexual ethics since 1972. Despite the growing backlash, he said that policy has remained the same. But within the last decade, pastors in more progressive churches have broken that covenant.
“If we are one church, we cannot act like we are two,” he said.
Renfroe said he knows this fight is not good for the church but he expects the battle to wage on.
“This has been very hurtful to a great number of people,” he said. “Many LGBTQ people see this as a rejection of who they are, but that’s not what this legislation is about. It’s about holding Bishops accountable.”
He said that traditional United Methodist churches are welcoming to their LGBTQ members.
“We have gays in our churches and they have found us to be very accepting and loving people,” he said.
Renfroe doesn’t expect many of the progressive churches to leave the denomination. He said he expects them to fight for what they believe in.
“This is kind of like the celebrities who say if so-and-so gets elected they’ll move to Canada, but then never do,” he said.
Renfroe said he believes it is in the best interest of both sides to break apart and go their separate ways instead of plunging the church into “a real period of chaos.”
“I understand that people see us as the bad guys,” he said. “We don’t want trials, but we just can’t be part of a church that we believe is encouraging non-biblical practices. I can’t be complicit in a church that is encouraging something in my name that I think is contrary to God’s will.”
Renfroe hopes that both sides can split amicably.
“I want a solution with no winners and no losers, just good people who say I could be wrong, but God bless you, you pursue what you think.”
Joyce said that she has had to reconcile with her own faith after the events of the last week. She expects many members of her church have struggled with similar feelings.
“I have to remember that the denomination is not God,” she said.
While the future of the United Church of Rogers Park’s denomination remains in jeopardy, Joyce said her church will continue to stand their ground.
“If it comes down to the life of this denomination, or the life of our LGBTQ members, we are always going to choose our LGBTQ members,” she said.
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