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What is the future of the Methodist church? Minnesota pastors discussing a split after new rules against gay weddings, ordinations

The Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgaard leads Hamline Church, a United Methodist Church congregation in St. Paul. On Feb. 26, the governing body of the church reaffirmed traditional rules forbidding gay marriages and clergy. “Pastors like me are heartbroken, anguished, mad and frustrated,” said Tollgaard, who performs gay marriage ceremonies. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Minnesota Methodist pastors are stunned by the church’s recent decision to strengthen rules against gay weddings and ordinations.

They are talking openly about splitting the church apart, to form a new denomination more open to sexual and gender variations.

“Pastors like me are heartbroken, anguished, mad and frustrated,” said the Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgaard of Hamline Church in St. Paul, which displays a rainbow banner outside the church.

“The outcome is the inevitable death of the United Methodist Church as it currently stands,” she wrote in a letter to her congregation.

On Feb. 26, the governing body of the church, called the General Conference, reaffirmed traditional rules forbidding gay marriages and clergy. It added new penalties to any clergy violating those rules.

The decision flies in the face of long-standing Minnesota traditions. In 1971, a Minnesota Methodist made national headlines by officiating one of the first gay weddings in the country. Since then, most of Minnesota’s Methodist churches support gay marriage and ordinations.

“A lot of clergy have acted in conscientious objection to church policies,” said the Rev. Amy Jo Bur of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Mendota Heights.

This year, all four Minnesota delegates to the national convention supported liberalizing the rules. They petitioned the church leadership for a change, as they had done repeatedly in the past.

But this year, they were shocked at the response.

By a vote of 438 to 384, the delegates to the General Conference in St. Louis supported the “Traditional Plan” with tough new rules against gay weddings and ordinations.

Bur was at the convention, and was aghast.

As the vote was announced, the crowd burst into cries, chanting and spontaneous singing. “It was very loud,” said Bur. “I was so saddened. It was awful.”

Delegate the Rev. Judy Zabel said the Traditional Plan passed because of foreign delegates.

The Methodist church has become a global church, she said, with 40 percent of convention delegates from foreign countries. Representatives from Africa, the Philippines and Eastern European countries supported the Traditional Plan.

In many of the delegates’ countries, Zabel said, homosexuality is discouraged and even banned by law.

“Their culture is not ready for this,” said Zabel, pastor of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. “Being a true global church comes with blessings, but it also comes with challenges.”

The American delegates, she said, would have passed the more-liberal measure.

Supporters of the Traditional Plan cheered the vote as a return to what they said was a Biblical ban on homosexuality.

“The old ladies in the villages … the young boys in the towns and villages are all celebrating that the United Methodist Church has maintained its traditional view of the Bible,” said Dr. Jerry Kulah of Liberia, general coordinator of the church’s Africa Initiative, according to National Public Radio.

“That is the kind of euphoria being expressed right now across Africa.”

What will happen in Minnesota?

In Minnesota, Methodists are pondering what to do next.

Several national church leaders are calling for a split — and even a three-way split, leaving the original church, a liberal spin-off and a conservative branch.

Zabel called the split “a real possibility. It’s very sad. God has called us to live in unity, in bonds of peace.”

“This intractable difference is harming our mission. We may find people who find this untenable. Some will leave the church.”

Hamline Church’s Tollgaard said the new policy could drive away younger parishioners, who are more supportive of gay marriage. “This is a whole new generation of harm we are causing,” said Tollgaard, who performs gay marriage ceremonies.

If the Methodist church does split apart, it would be similar to the split of the nation’s Lutheran churches in 2010 over similar issues.

“This morning, my heart is heavy, discouraged, and wounded,” wrote Bruce Ough, bishop of the Methodist Dakotas-Minnesota Area, in a letter to churches.

“In particular, I lament the harm that has been done and will be experienced by our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. To you I say ‘You are not the problem.’ You are of sacred worth. Our failure to hear you, or see you, or respect you, or include you is the problem.”

What will not change, vowed St. Paul’s Bur, is her commitment to welcome everyone who walks into her church.

“Minnesota tends to be a welcoming place,” said Bur. “Minnesota in general is quite unhappy with this.”

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