GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It was Pastor Mark Thompson’s first trip to a General Conference of The United Methodist Church, but he couldn’t make it all the way through.
“It got to the point where the pain was too great for me and I had to leave,” Thompson recalled in an interview Wednesday.
Thompson, former pastor at Faith United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, drove home the day before Tuesday’s crucial vote on the church’s policies regarding LGBTQ people.
“On the way home, I listened to the radio so I could focus on something else so I could be able to make the trip home safely,” Thompson said.
The openly gay pastor, now at Lansing Central United Methodist Church, is celibate, which is the only way he can serve. He had hoped desperately that conference delegates would decide to afford him, and all LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church, the freedom to be who they are.
It was not to be.
Some 864 delegates from around the world, half lay people and half clergy, voted at the conference in St. Louis, Missouri, to uphold and strengthen the church’s ban on practicing LGBTQ persons serving as clergy. The vote also continued the ban on and increased the penalties for performing same-sex marriage ceremonies.
“(What that says to me is) we’re not concerned about your pain,” Thompson remarked, sitting in the pews of his Lansing church. “(It) hurts tremendously.”
The vote was 438 to 384.
According to a response issued Wednesday by Bishop David Bard of the Michigan Conference, research indicated the majority of American delegates voted for what the bishop described as “more inclusive plans.”
“But the more traditional delegates representing Africa and Asia resulted in support of the Traditional Plan,” the response (PDF) read.
Retired pastor John Ross Thompson, who served most recently at Genesis UMC in Lowell, said the restrictions were upheld and tightened because of the church’s worldwide reach.
“Forty percent of the people who voted in St. Louis are from other countries and they’re very conservative,” Ross Thompson said in an interview at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, where he is a member of the congregation. “Some of (those delegates) come from countries where if you say you’re gay, you could be executed.”
Ross Thompson said the 20 percent of American delegates who supported the ban were able to convince delegates from outside the United States to stand with them.
But one conservative coalition within the denomination, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, said Wednesday that the vote came only after “intense research and dialogue” and that those gathered in St. Louis were the “best and brightest” of the church all over the world.
24 Hour News 8 reached out to the Michigan regional contact for the WCA, Tom Anderson of Highland United Methodist Church in Oakland County. He noted that the United Methodist Church spent $3.5 million on the special conference and that all voices were heard.
“I think we can all agree it was very emotional. We are clearly a deeply divided church,” Anderson said over the phone. “We are not a unified church, and we need to try to find a way to be unified.”
According to its website, Wesleyan Covenant Association is committed to the “authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”
“We are in a time of great uncertainty in the United Methodist Church,” said a statement on the WCA website. “Persistent and escalating disobedience to the order and discipline of our church has created anarchy.”
John Ross Thompson said he will continue to perform same-sex ceremonies in defiance of the church’s renewed stance against homosexuality.
“I could lose my credentials,” he said. “I’m glad to risk it because God is calling me to serve all people and there are many other United Methodist pastors who are in the exact same position.”
Pastor Mark Thompson initially said he would follow policy and not perform same-sex marriages. Later, after watching 24 Hour News 8’s report, he said he had a change of heart and felt called to perform same-sex marriages “despite the possible negative consequences in my career.”
He said he will remain celibate.
“I’ll continue to toe the line at this present time, but I do look forward to retirement. My joke that I have is the say I retire is the day I’m going to go on my first date,” he said, chuckling.
Ross Thompson said while the majority of church leaders in Michigan are in favor of the most inclusive plans, the views of congregants themselves are a “mixed bag,” and there’s a “significant minority” that believes in the more conservative interpretation of the Bible.
24 Hour News 8 was unable to find a West Michigan pastor willing to speak publicly in favor of the strengthened ban.
A viewer, unhappy with 24 Hour News 8’s coverage, weighed in via email, but did not want his last name used.
“Christianity has absolutely nothing to do with being inclusive,” wrote the emailer, who only wanted to be identified only as Lawrence. “It has Everything (sic) to do with the teaching and Word of Jesus Christ. The Bible- in every translation – condemns the practice of homosexuality…. SCRIPTURE AND GOD DO NOT CHANGE TO MEET THE LIKES AND CHANGES OF SOCIETY.”
Ross Thompson, however, contended that those who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality are taking statements out of context.
“You can’t use polyester. Divorce is banned. … If you pick and choose and take things out of context, you can ban almost anything from reading something out of the Bible,” Ross Thompson said.