South Carolina

Columbia Methodist church becomes only one in SC to join push for gay marriage rights

A Columbia church has voted to become the only United Methodist Church in South Carolina to join a national campaign pushing for gay marriage rights.

The Washington Street United Methodist Church Council voted unanimously at the end of July to join a network of other ministries across the country pushing for church reforms.

“Washington Street has been living out her welcome and affirmation of all people for over a decade,” Pastor Patricia Parrish said in a statement on the church’s website. “This affiliation with Reconciling Ministries Network does not change who we are, but is a public declaration of our deep desire for change ... and our commitment to seek the change we desire.”

The Columbia church is the only congregation in the state to join the Reconciling Ministries Network, a Christian network of more than 1,000 church communities that promote the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning individuals in church ministry, according to S.C. Methodist church leaders.

A small United Methodist Church in Greenville became the first congregation in South Carolina to join the network in 2012, but that church closed its doors in March.

The vote comes amid a period of tense debate within Methodist churches over whether to support same-sex marriage or allow LGBTQ people to join the clergy.

In February, the rule-making body of the United Methodist Church affirmed and strengthened the denomination’s bans on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

Progressive Methodists in South Carolina seeking a more inclusive church were dealt another setback when proposals open to LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage never made it to debate during a meeting of the S.C. United Methodist Conference in June.

Supporters of ending the Methodists’ prohibition on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy say the bans threaten the longevity of the church by alienating LGBTQ congregants and clergy when the church, facing historic declines in U.S. membership, should instead push to be more inclusive.

Current Methodist doctrine holds that all people have sacred worth. But it also says the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and prohibits “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being “certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

“It was not a shot across the bow to stir up some discussion, but meant to signal to the community that Washington Street (UMC) is welcoming and accepting of all people, including from the gay community,” said Church Council member Don Fowler, who pushed for debate on the proposals calling for greater inclusion in church ministry.

“We did what we did because we think the Christian ministry is available to all,” Fowler told The State. “We believe people from the gay community should stand in equal status with anyone else who chooses to worship with us. We did what we did because we think it’s the Christian spirit of our church.”

On the other side of the debate is the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which seeks to maintain traditional, orthodox Methodist beliefs. The association of congregations, clergy and laity has a South Carolina chapter led by Jeff Kersey, pastor of Mt. Horeb UMC in Lexington.

Kersey could not be reached for comment Monday. Former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley was a member of Mt. Horeb UMC.

Neither the progressive Reconciling Ministries Network nor the more conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association is officially recognized by the United Methodist Church.

In a statement, S.C. United Methodist Conference Bishop L. Jonathan Holston warned that churches that align with either could risk being at odds with church doctrine.

Holston said he is committed “to lead the whole Church,” while upholding current teachings and practices. He also called for patience and unity, “rather than polarization and disunity,” as local churches make decisions about their identity, purpose and mission.

S.C. Methodists in June elected delegates to attend the UMC’s 2020 General Conference, a global summit of Methodists expected to again take up the issue of LGBTQ inclusion.

A majority of delegates elected — including all eight clergy — were from a loose coalition of progressive and centrist church members backed by a movement that seeks to eliminate church restrictions and penalties for LGBTQ persons.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.