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Tampa Bay United Methodist clergy vow to defy church's LGBTQ bans

International vote roils the United Methodist Church and draws strong response from local clergy.
Published Feb. 28

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rev. Andy Oliver has a plan for how his congregation will respond to a controversial vote by the United Methodist denomination that he says marginalizes the LGBTQ community.

"This Sunday, we're having a special service where we are inviting all of our community partners to come to grieve and celebrate together who we are," the pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg said, after returning from an international conference of the United Methodist Church in St. Louis.

Delegates voted against a proposal to let regional church bodies decide whether to ordain gays and lesbians in relationships, allow clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages and hold such ceremonies in a church.

Delegates also supported a "Traditional Plan" that strengthens enforcement and penalties against clergy who break the rules.

"This outcome is a profound disappointment to many of us who were pushing for greater justice and equality," the Rev. Magrey deVega, senior pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, said Wednesday in a letter to his more than 2,000-member congregation.

"A lot of tears have been falling. We weep together, among the LGBTQ persons who are stunned, saddened, and harmed by this news," he said. "We weep among the thousands of young clergy and laity in our denomination who are angered and disillusioned."

The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative group, opposed changing the church's stance on LGBTQ issues.

"We are gratified that the church reaffirmed its historic teachings on the definition of marriage, its sexual ethics and its standards for the ordination of clergy," said its president, the Rev. Keith Boyette.

Jamie Westlake, pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church in Brandon, is vice president of the group's Florida chapter.

"I really grieve that there is so much conflict and pain over this," Westlake said, adding that he had been in favor of a way for traditionalists, centrists and progressives to work separately under the United Methodist umbrella.

Oliver said churches in the U.S. have long defied the denomination's LGBTQ policies and that will not change.

"Clergy like myself have been openly officiating same-sex marriages," he said. "The church calls us, when we see laws that are unjust, to dissent. So I have been practicing that at the risk of losing my orders."

A majority of the American delegates supported the change, he said, and added the Traditional Plan will most likely be ruled unconstitutional by the church's judicial body.

"The entire Western region of the church declared at the end of the conference they will continue to ignore the church's discriminatory laws," Oliver said.

"We are not leaving,'' he said. "The conservative faction of the church, even before the conference, said they did want to leave. So what did pass was an exit plan which may open the door for some churches to leave and form their own denomination."

Last year, the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, a jurisdiction that includes Tampa Bay area congregations, attempted to address the controversy ahead of this year's global conference. The goal was to prepare members to understand "differing perspectives regarding human sexuality."

Christ United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg offered the program.

"The purpose was not to convince anyone or to change anyone's mind. It was to listen. It was just to have a safe place to share and agree to disagree," the Rev. Jacqueline Jones-Smith said.

Christ Church will continue to carry out its ministry, she said in response to Tuesday's vote.

"We are a downtown congregation and we are clearly a diverse congregation in terms of our political and social values,'' she said. "My guess is we are going to have some people who are pleased by the decision and some people who are going to be hurt. I am hopeful that there's going to be more that unites us in doing the ministry of our Lord and savior."

The Wesleyan Covenant Association had been "cautiously optimistic" about Tuesday's vote, Boyette said.

"The United Methodist Church is an international church and the members who live outside the United States are overwhelmingly traditional in their perspective...and we were confident that their delegates, plus the traditional delegates in the United States would be the majority," he said, adding that he is not in favor of a split.

Oliver is concerned about the effect of Tuesday's vote.

"The immediate effect is the harm done to the LGBTQ community and specifically children and youth," he said. "These are the kids that are at the highest risk for suicide and when a young person is sent the message that they are not loved by God that has life and death implications."

On Sunday, his congregation will commit to working with Equality Florida for safe and healthy schools, concentrating on anti-bullying and other policies to make schools safe for transgender children.

"This may be a blow for the general church,'' he said, "but it's going to mobilize us to deeper action."

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