The United Methodist Church this week voted to uphold its stance against same-sex marriages and non-celibate LGBT clergy after three days of debate at a special conference in St. Louis.
More than 800 delegates to the United Methodist General Conference voted Tuesday to approve the church's "Traditional Plan" 53 percent to 47 percent over two other plans - a "One Church Plan" that would have left decisions about weddings and gay clergy to individual congregations and church conferences, and a "Simple Plan," which would have eliminated all restrictions in the denomination's Book of Discipline related to homosexuality.
The Traditional Plan retains current church positions on homosexuality and adds further accountability measures against anyone who violates the UMC's stance.
In the Twin Ports, however, United Methodist clergy say they're united in opposition to the decision, and they face uncertainty about their congregations. Sitting around a table Thursday at First United Methodist Church in Duluth — also known as the "copper-top church" — clergy members talked about the challenges ahead.
"I'm stunned and in misery about this decision," said Pastor Sarah Lawton of Hope United Methodist Church in Duluth. "It does not feel representative of the church that I serve, nor the church that I believe in, nor the church I want to see."
As LGBT people and stories gained more public acceptance in recent years, the church has found itself facing a schism between members who support current doctrine and those who support a more inclusive church.
In 2016, the church's Council of Bishops formed a Commission on a Way Forward. The commission released a report offering courses of action.
Pastor Jeanine Alexander at First United Methodist said her congregation includes LGBT members and clergy and that they will continue to be welcomed with open arms.
"The copper-top church has been a 'reconciling congregation' for many years, and that means we include all people fully, with an emphasis on the LGBTQ community, which has been discriminated by the church for many years," Alexander said. "So we extend a special welcome to them. And being a reconciling congregation means that we believe that discrimination and exclusion in any form is incompatible with Christian teaching."
After the vote on Tuesday, First United Methodist held a gathering with United Methodist LGBT community members and their allies to discuss the result.
"We just said, 'We're going to gather for a potluck,'" said Pastor Cynthia Coffin-Langdon, who works at both Hillside United Methodist Church in Duluth as well as First United Methodist. "'We're going to watch the final vote and proceedings of the conference, and then we're just going to have time to talk.'"
The church, some 12 million members globally, has taken the stance that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" since its general conference in 1972.
Seven million United Methodists live in the United States, where same-sex marriage is legal, and hold a wide variety of stances on political and social issues. The church's other 5 million congregants are spread across the globe.
Alexander said two-thirds to three-fourths of American United Methodist delegates to the conference voted for the more inclusive church plan, but delegates from other nations tipped the balance toward keeping the rules as they are. About 30 percent of delegates to this week's conference were from Africa, where attitudes and laws about homosexuality typically are more strict.
The plan approved at Tuesday's conference still must pass muster with the church's Judicial Council, which will review it for constitutionality under the church's doctrine.
In the meantime, Alexander said, the church clearly is facing a split.
"The vote was 47 (percent) to 53 percent," she said. "So, the United Methodist Church is splitting in some form."
It remains unclear if the church might physically split.
Alexander said she was worried for her congregation and how it might be perceived in the wake of the vote, despite the congregation's own inclusive stance.
"My fear is that because (people are) hearing this keep being discussed, because there are punitive votes, this won't be the safe place that we have worked so hard to create," she said.
Pastor Karen Ashton at Forbes United Methodist Church in Proctor said a potential split is the biggest concern for her congregation, which she described as being open and welcoming toward diverse populations even though she wasn't aware of any current LGBT members.
Ashton said she wants to make sure congregants who were in favor of the more restrictive Traditional Plan aren't excluded from the overall conversation and space.
"I also don't want to exclude those that are, you know, profoundly and openly homophobic," Ashton said. "I mean, I think they're all welcome, and if we're going to be inclusive then we have to include those persons, too. How in the world do we offer them a safe place to be able to voice what they feel and also to change and learn something to see that they are wrong?"
Other clergy members agreed, as long as the United Methodist church's basic tenet of "do no harm" is respected, on both sides of the issue.
"What I'm learning, too, as a heterosexual pastor, is that when people are expressing opinions contrary to inclusion, it's irritating to me," Alexander said. "It's wrong. But it doesn't hit me at the core of my being. And we've got to protect people for whom it's at the core of their being."
On the whole, however, local clergy sounded a hopeful note. Each planned to address the vote during services today, with a focus on inclusion.
"I say every Sunday that God loves you as you are," Lawton said. "And when we share Communion I say (that) all people are welcome here, whether you are black or white or gay or straight or any spectrum of human existence."
Alexander, too, wants the Twin Ports to know that her church puts its congregants first.
"Regardless of what the larger church decides to do, this church remains inclusive of all - and that's more than just 'welcome,'" she said. "Almost every church welcomes people, right? They welcome you, but then you can't do this. They welcome you, but that. In this church, there are no 'buts.'"
"God is bigger than the church," Coffin-Langdon said. "There are times in history when the church has been very hurtful and wrong. We think this is one of those times, and so we're going to do everything we can do to change that. And if that means splitting, it means splitting."
"Cynthia had a really good analogy," Alexander said, looking at Coffin-Langdon. "This feels really like a tomb right now, a death, but maybe it's not a tomb. Maybe it's a womb, ushering us into new life."