Religions across America are reckoning with how they address nontraditional members of their faith. The latest is the Methodist Church, which has at least 12 million members in the U.S. and approximately 80 million worldwide.
The church is structured after the American governmental system with executive, judicial and legislative branches. A vote cast by church leaders who attended the church’s recent special session in St. Louis this February upheld the faith’s traditional ban on homosexuality. But that stance is being challenged. The Reverend Elizabeth McVicker serves as a pastor in two Methodist Churches in Salt Lake City.
McVicker was born in Rangoon, Burma, now known as Myanmar, and is of Chinese descent. Her family emigrated to the U.S. when she was 2 years old. She attended Yale where she received her BA in American Studies. She went to seminary at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.
McVicker has worked as a reverend for more than 20 years. She is currently the pastor for two Methodist churches in Salt Lake City. Over the past 20 years, she says, she’s been quiet about her growing conviction that LGBTQ people deserve a place in the Methodist Church, both as parishioners who can be married in the church and also to become pastors. But recently she decided she had to take a stand.
McVicker’s son is gay, she said, and many of her parishioners are too. KUER’s Daysha Eaton spoke with McVicker about how the faith’s changes could affect people in Utah.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Daysha Eaton: You went to this big gathering in St. Louis. Can you tell me about this?
Elizabeth McVicker: The United Methodist Church is structured largely after the American governmental system where we have an executive branch, which is our bishops, a judicial branch, which is called the judicial council — it's like our supreme court. Then we have the Legislative Branch, which is the General Conference. They meet every four years to discuss and approve legislation for the church. This past General Conference was a special conference that met in between our regularly scheduled conferences. It’s kind of like a special session where you have a called issue that everyone agrees to talk about and nothing else.
In 2016 when our General Conference met we came to a huge impasse where the council of Bishops came forward and said, ‘allow us to lead you. Give us some time to bring forth some plans to move forward and we will have a special General Conference.’ That happened at the end of February.
The topic was on homosexuality to help us move forward. There were three different plans that were proposed. One was the ‘traditional plan’ which would essentially maintain the prohibitive language in our book of discipline and also institute greater, more consistent penalties towards pastors who broke those policies. The traditional plan is what prevailed, although much of that plan was deemed unconstitutional by the Judicial Council during the time we were meeting, and they were still waiting for the final opinion from our Judicial Council. In terms of what was ultimately passed, that's going to come in the end of April.
DE: Give me the overview of what's happening here in Salt Lake City, in Utah.
EM: We have 17 United Methodist churches in Utah. The overwhelming majority of them are in favor of inclusivity of gay and lesbian people, doing same sex marriages, ordaining gay and lesbian people. There are just two or three pastors that would have more of a conservative perspective.
There are six passages in the Bible that mention homosexuality. And those are used by the traditionalists to justify discriminating against gay and lesbian people. I, as well as many others, read the Bible in a larger context and understand that many of those passages don't even refer to what we understand as consenting same-sex attractive relationships. Some of those passages actually relate to temple prostitution, which is not what we're talking about at all. Some of them talk about pedophilia in temple prostitution. And on the other hand, I look towards the message of Jesus Christ as the real standard. While Jesus said much about many things, he never said anything about homosexuality — instead his whole ministry was about inclusivity and particularly tending to the people who've been left out of society. And so, that's the approach that I take in my ministry.
DE: Is it possible that there may be a fracturing of the church?
EM: My sense is that the church is already fracturing and we are in the stages of formalizing different denominations. Exactly how that will play out is still unclear. Parts of the traditional plan that were passed at General Conference will stand. The part that I think won't be deemed constitutional is the exit plan that was passed because there were similar exit plans which would allow local churches to leave the denomination and retain their church buildings and property. The traditionalists may choose to stay within the denomination and continue to rule it. If they do, then the progressives and many of the centrists will choose to form a new denomination.