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United Methodist Church remains fractured over ordaining LGBTQ+ clergy

DAVID GURA, HOST:

One of the largest churches in America is fracturing. The United Methodist denomination has over 6 million members in the United States, and they're divided over the question of ordaining gay ministers. More than a hundred congregations have already broken away from the denomination in opposition. While the church's next big conference is not until 2024, its Council of Bishops had some important conversations about that very subject at a meeting last week. Kimberly Scott is a pastor in the United Methodist Church, also the chair of its Reconciling Ministries Network. That's an LGBTQ advocacy group. She left the church for seven years and came back to be its first Black, female, openly gay pastor, and she joins us now from Phoenix. Welcome, Kimberly.

KIMBERLY SCOTT: Thank you, David.

GURA: So this debate over ordaining gay clergy has been going on for a while, since the late '60s. And I wonder why there is now this wave of churches suddenly leaving the United Methodist denomination.

SCOTT: Well, yes. The debate, as you said, has been going on since, really, the denomination first formed, which coincides with a lot of what was going on in other Protestant denominations here in the United States. And so right now, we are in a place where, yes, some of our churches are choosing to leave. And that has kind of evolved out of a sense of frustration because, as you know, we had COVID that came up, so things were put on hold. Back in 2019, Bishop Yambasu got a group of clergy and laypersons, leaders in the church, together to craft a type of mediation. Because of the delay in the General Conference, there are some groups who just simply got impatient, tired of waiting on the church. We're just going to go ahead and begin crafting our own church.

GURA: You identify as queer, and I wonder what your experience has been like working in the church, being a part of the church as long as you have been.

SCOTT: Yeah. Well, you know, being an openly queer Black woman who was just ordained in the Desert Southwest Conference has not been easy. I had experienced a lot of hurt and harm. For a long time, I left the church - from age 18 to about age 25. And what brought me back to church was the fact that I was working in the schools as a school counselor, and I had tons of kids who were wrestling with their sexual orientation and also having spiritual problems and concerns. And so I came back to the church to help them get through the things that they were dealing with.

Little did I really know, when I first went to seminary, just how tough things were in the Methodist church and how much of a fight it would be to eventually get to ordination. However, I was lucky to have a conference at the time who was already having - the Desert Southwest Conference was already having very difficult and hard conversations, and they had voted to become a reconciling conference, which meant they were willing to accept all candidates, regardless of their sexual orientation.

GURA: Kimberly, you said it's been hard, and I wonder sort of what that's been like for you personally. What in particular has been difficult or hard about going down this track?

SCOTT: Whenever you're the first, you have to do a lot of things to explain yourself and to prove yourself. And so when you are part of this denomination and you are trying to get through their system and they don't have others who've come through who look like you or sound like you, they may question your intelligence. They may question your calling. They may question your theology. And then the other part was always second-guessing myself - whether or not I was supposed to be open about my sexual orientation, whether or not I was supposed to play the game of don't ask, don't tell.

GURA: Just so that I'm clear, is the church's official stance on homosexuality today ambiguous or is it pretty clearly defined and you'd like to see it changed?

SCOTT: Well, it's clear-cut in regards to our Book of Discipline, right? It clearly states that you cannot be an openly-practicing homosexual and be ordained in the United Methodist Church. That's very clear, right? It sounds clear. It also states that although all human beings are of sacred worth, homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. However, in many conferences in the United Methodist Church, especially here in the U.S., churches have gone beyond what the Book of Discipline says to make the church open and accessible to gay and lesbian clergy like myself.

GURA: Do you know other pastors who aren't as open as you or haven't been able to be as open as you - have made this choice to keep this important side of their lives quiet or secret from their congregations?

SCOTT: Absolutely so. You know, and I come from a conference - we have several queer clergy now. But when I first left for seminary, they were not open because they could not be. But all across the country, we have folks. We have folks in Alabama. We have folks in Florida. We have folks in Atlanta. You know, we're all over the country. We're all over the world, quite frankly. But not everyone can be as open as I can.

GURA: This is a global church. United Methodist Church is a global institution - has more than 12 million members worldwide. How is this playing out in countries outside the United States?

SCOTT: Yeah. You know, it's interesting because from my experiences in some of the African countries, in particular Kenya, they are - for the most part, they are wanting to stay with the United Methodist Church. The debate around homosexuality is not something that most African and third-world countries are - really care about. You know, I was just in Kenya three weeks ago, and some of these churches don't even have lights. They don't even have clean drinking water for their people. Many of their people are living on the streets, or they're living in thatched-roof huts, you know? And so they're just wanting to have food on their table. So this is not their issue. It's our issue. And they understand that when the United Methodist Church breaks up, what they lose is the security of mission dollars and mission help that they get by being a part of our denomination.

GURA: Kimberly, what's your message to congregations who are thinking about leaving - maybe haven't left yet, but are thinking about it?

SCOTT: What I say to them is that I love you with the grace of God that God has given me. I wish that we could live in harmony and that we could live as one body. But if, at this point, you feel that you cannot stay, please feel free to exit. But please don't cause destruction as you leave the church. And that's the bottom line. But at - right now, what we should be focused on is just simply doing ministry because there is so much need for just good ministry in the world. There's so much need for people to feel loved and people to feel welcomed and for people to just, quite frankly, have community. And that's what the church was meant to be. You know, Jesus called us to free the oppressed, right? Jesus called us to be on the side of the poor, to be on the side of the sick. And if we're more focused on who someone is sleeping on - with or what their gender identity is, we're not doing the work of Jesus.

GURA: Kimberly Scott is a pastor with the United Methodist Church, also chair of the Reconciling Ministries Network. Kimberly, thank you.

SCOTT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.