The Rev. Rachel Griffin-Allison

The denomination’s General Convention approved language changes allowing same-sex weddings, LGBTQ clergy

DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer

Delegates to the United Methodist Church 2024 General Conference voted overwhelmingly last month to remove its 40-year old ban on “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” serving as clergy. Also, clergy may no longer be penalized for performing same-sex weddings.

Although lesbians and gays had officially been banned from serving as clergy, enforcement of that ban varied from diocese to diocese. Joretta Marshall, for example, was ordained in the Methodist Church in Colorado and was out as she served as dean of Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth. And a number of other gays and lesbians already serving as ministers around the country, with at least two already elevated to bishop.

The Rev. Eric Folkerth

In addition, a number of United Methodist Churches in Dallas County have been performing same-sex weddings for several years. But they’ve mostly been doing so quietly to discourage marriage equality opponents from filing charges against the “offending” pastors.

The vote came as the United Methodist Church in April held its first General Conference since before the COVID pandemic. A number of congregations have left the denomination in recent years over the issue.

To pave the way for LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage, at the beginning of the conference this year, delegates approved a regionalization plan that would allow different regions to adopt different rules. Under the former system, rules were adopted globally. Methodist churches in Africa have voted as a block to ban same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination in the past.

The new system allows different regions to have different rules while respecting each other’s differences.

In 2019, congregations were given the freedom to leave the denomination over matters of conscience in anticipation of rules changes at upcoming conferences. They were allowed to keep their property, which belonged to the denomination. In Texas, 40 percent of the United Methodist churches left to join the conservative Global Methodist Church or to become independent.

But in Dallas County, only two churches left the denomination, according to the Rev. Eric Folkerth, pastor of Kessler Park UMC. He said in West Texas, most churches left.

“The delegate who put the report on the floor to eliminate the 1972 incompatibility clause was an African-American woman from North Texas,” Folkerth said. “That was a symbol of how the North Texas Conference is ready to live together. I’m hopeful about that.”

What surprised him was how everything passed by large margins or simply passed on the consent agenda. “It was very thorough,” he said. “In two weeks, we undid the harm that took 52 years to develop.”

Folkerth said delegates made a beautiful statement about LGBTQ rights and offered an apology for the harm that was done. In his own church, he said, the new discipline was met with tears of joy. He said Sunday’s service was very emotional.

Rev. Ann Willet

Some churches aren’t ready to accept LGBTQ clergy in their own congregations, and some pastors aren’t comfortable performing same-sex weddings. He said that was okay — as long as churches respected each other.

“We are going to be a big church,” Folkerth said, that will allow ministers to “serve our local field mission.”

Folkerth said the atmosphere in some of the conservative churches which had left the denomination was toxic. “Conservative churches lied about what was going to happen,” he said. “’The United Methodist Church will come after your beliefs and become ultra-liberal. They’ll send you a gay pastor to recruit your children.’”

That, of course didn’t happen and is not going to happen. Little will change in most churches. Some will begin performing same-sex weddings; others that had already been performing same-sex weddings may do so more openly. And some may decide they’re not ready to perform them.

For the Rev. Rachel Griffin-Allison, senior pastor of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church on the corner of Oak Lawn Avenue and Cedar Springs Road, the vote was personal.

Not only has she come out as a lesbian, she married her wife last September. Until the conference changed the language on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage, she had to keep both her sexual orientation and her marital status quiet or risk losing her credentials.

Her Sunday sermon last week included what she called a long list of names of LGBTQ clergy who have served the congregation — going back as far as Gene Leggitt, a gay man who was an intern from Perkins School of Theology before the 1972 language went into the Book of Discipline.

Her reaction to the change in wording is simple: “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” Griffin-Allison said, describing her life before the change as being “forced into hiding in the middle of the gayborhood.”

“Locally, we have been a welcoming congregation before,” she said. “That doesn’t change.”

What does change is that she’s already seen new interest from people in the area and people who commute “looking for a safe space.”

The Rev. Ann Willet, senior pastor at Northaven UMC, described last Sunday’s worship service as joyous, with noisemakers and musical instruments.

“What it means is we can now celebrate gay weddings without fear of church charges,” Willet said. “I’ve been presiding at weddings, but I’ve had to do it secretly. And members of Northaven can now be ordained.”

While she said the church doesn’t track its members sexual orientation, Northaven has had a large number of LGBTQ congregants for years. She estimated 20 to 30 percent of the current congregation is LGBTQ.

As a form of resistance to the anti-LGBTQ wording in the Book of Discipline, the words United Methodist have been kept covered with a rainbow flag on Northaven’s large outdoor sign since the last general conference. As the flag has been regularly destroyed or stolen, the church has repeatedly replaced it.

To celebrate the change in wording that now welcomes LGBTQ members, the Pride flag will be removed from the church sign and will fly elsewhere on the property, Willet said, adding that with the new wording in place, she is once again proud to display the sign that includes the words United Methodist.