ST. PETERSBURG — A historic proposal for the 13-million member United Methodist denomination to split over LGBTQ inclusion in the church was announced Friday.
Traditionalists who oppose same-sex marriage and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clergy will be free to form their own denomination. Those who favor full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church will remain under the United Methodist banner.
Tampa Bay area church leaders who support inclusion say it’s about time. That included the Rev. Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, who faced possible discipline for officiating at a same-sex wedding that violated church rules.
“It’s a great day for inclusion for the United Methodist Church," said Oliver, 40. "This agreement will only be fully realized if it is voted in at the general conference. However, in the meantime, it tables all LGBTQ complaints allowing clergy to offer the ministry of marriage to all people, and gay and lesbian clergy to continue serving.”
The break-up must be approved when the United Methodist general conference is held in May in Minneapolis. If it passes, it would end a decades-long argument within the church over the role and status of LGBTQ people.
“This is a victory for those who want inclusion," Oliver said. "It is a bittersweet victory in that the unity of the church suffered a loss, but the most important thing is that the marginalized and the oppressed will be allowed to be at the center of the United Methodist Church moving forward.”
Last year, Oliver was called to the office of Bishop Ken Carter, head the Florida United Methodist Conference — and president of the denomination’s Council of Bishops — to answer a complaint that Oliver officiated at the marriage of two women.
The complaint was filed by the Rev. Brent Byerman of Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church in Tampa. The meeting with the bishop ended without any action being taken. A spokeswoman for Lake Magdalene said the church did not wish to comment for this story.
The complaint followed a contentious meeting in February. Delegates voted 438-384 for a proposal called the Traditional Plan, which affirmed bans on LGBTQ-inclusive practices. A majority of U.S.-based delegates opposed the plan, but they were outvoted by U.S. conservatives teamed with most of the delegates from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines.
Carter, the Florida bishop, was among the 16 leaders who met nine times in recent months — six times with mediator Kenneth Feinberg, who has overseen compensation funds for 9/11, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Pulse massacre in Orlando — to hammer out the agreement.
“The fact that we met for nine long days illustrates that we didn’t come to an agreement easily,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the conservative group that fought changing the denomination’s LGBTQ policy.
“In fact, there was no resolution on all the disputed matters until the last hour of the last day. The meetings were stressful. They were personally difficult ... but they were conducted with great civility and respect for others who were at the table .... And because of our desire to reach an outcome that would enable us to bless one another, we were able to make the necessary compromises.”
At Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, senior pastor the Rev. Magrey deVega called the agreement “a helpful and hopeful move forward for the denomination.”
His church of nearly 2,000 members “has among its core values to be a warm-hearted and open-minded congregation,” he said. “That means it believes that God’s love is for all people, without exclusion or judgment. It is my personal hope that this denomination can move forward as an inclusive expression of God’s love for all people, and this development feels like a step in that direction.”
Opposing LGBTQ inclusion were church leaders like Jamie Westlake, who recently served as pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church in Brandon and is headed to University Carillon United Methodist Church in Oviedo. He is vice president of the Wesleyan Covenant’s Florida chapter.
“I am encouraged by the fact that everyone in the room, from all around the world and from all the different positions, were able to agree together on a plan. That is a good sign of something that is fair and gracious. And nobody is going to get everything they want and that’s the dilemma," he said, adding that he didn’t know all the details.
"To me, a denomination is a voluntary organization of like-minded folks and we’re not like-minded anymore and it can’t be held together.”
Nadine Smith, executive director of LGBTQ-advocate Equality Florida, said she appreciates those within the denomination who supported inclusion.
“This is a divide that has been brewing for a long time and I’m proud of those who have stood on the side of inclusion, diversity and equality as opposed to disparagement and discrimination,” she said.
Oliver sent out a letter to his congregation about the agreement Friday: “Allendale will not only be free to continue to live out our Welcome Statement without being hampered, but other congregations wishing to follow Allendale’s lead will have the safe path to do so.”
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story, which uses information from the Associated Press.