CEDAR FALLS — The Rev. Wendi Gillan describes herself, proudly, as “ornery.”
Her congregation at St. Timothys, she says, is one of the most “radically progressive” United Methodist churches in the Cedar Valley. Rainbow banners adorn columns outside the church. Inside, there’s a more explicit promise to her congregants.
“God’s love includes lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, all ethnicities, genders, classes, abilities and ages together,” reads a banner inside.
It’s quite a statement for a congregation that is, in theory, supposed to abide by the global UMC “Book of Discipline,” which since 1972 has instructed its clergy that homosexuality is incompatible with church teachings.
But for decades, those words were just that — words. And in her 6-year tenure, Gillan’s congregation — as well as other progressive UMC congregations across the U.S. — ignored the directive.
“Mostly, we let it go,” Gillan said. “I think we must be Midwest Nice. It’s no big deal — we’re going to do our own thing.”
Things changed Feb. 26 when an international UMC conference ended in a seemingly irreconcilable split over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT clergy. About 53 percent of the delegates voted to maintain bans on those practices and strengthen enforcement, dismaying centrists and liberals who favored LGBT inclusion and now are faced with the choice of leaving the UMC or considering acts of defiance from within, according to an Associated Press article.
Now, if Gillan performs just one same-sex marriage, she can be suspended without pay for an entire year. Do it twice, and she could be defrocked.
It’s a rare thing to have punishment spelled out in any UMC doctrine, Gillan said.
“This is the only place where any penalty is set out,” she said.
But Gillan’s not backing down. During Sunday’s service, Gillan told her congregation what happened, noting she was “heartbroken” over the results of the conference.
“I was apologizing to my LGBTQ siblings for the pain this has caused — I could just see their pain,” Gillan said. “You know this kind of treatment and language has to be devastating.”
Church member Kent Shankle, who is gay and has attended St. Timothys since preschool, said Sunday’s service was meaningful for him.
“Lots of tears and determination to stand behind our congregation’s convictions and commitment to embrace, respect, and stand with the LGBTQIA community,” he wrote in a Facebook message.
St. Timothys isn’t alone: A dozen Cedar Valley-area pastors signed on to a Tuesday letter to the editor all but condemning the resolution.
Gillan said two schools of thought have emerged: One is for the progressive and centrist congregations to split off from UMC, becoming a separate entity — similar to what happened to the Evangelican Lutheran Church after a similar decision on homosexuality.
The other school of thought: Fight the decision from within the UMC, because the decision isn’t set in stone just yet. Gillan said UMC’s judicial body will decide in April if the latest doctrine is “legal” from the church’s standpoint.
“One of the sayings going around right now that breaks my heart is, ‘The Bible says it, I believe it, and that’s it,’” she said. “One of the key points of Methodist teachings is you’re supposed to think for yourself. And because of that, we’ve embodied a wide diversity of ideology.”
Gillan said she will lead St. Timothys as she always has until her retirement July 1, after which her replacement, Scott Lothe of Marshalltown, will take up the mantle.
“Scott and I are on the same page,” Gillan said.
She pointed to a vow Methodists take when they are baptized or confirmed into church membership: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
“That’s the heart of St. Timothys — we live out that vow,” she said.
This article was updated March 7 to reflect that the UMC conference that decided the new penalties was an international conference, not a national one.
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