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Some United Methodist congregations are facing the prospect of severing ties with the denomination after the church’s decision-making conference doubled down on rules that ban gay clergy members and same-sex marriage.

“Certainly that would be part of our conversation,” said the Rev. Jenny Arneson, pastor of the Sun Prairie United Methodist Church, which has about 750 members and about 250 more who participate in services and programs. “How do we stay within the denomination or do we make a move?”

The vote, which took place on Tuesday at the church’s general conference in St. Louis, was a rejection of a proposal known as the One Church Plan, which would have allowed individual churches to decide whether to ordain or marry lesbian, gay or transgender members.

Instead, conservative delegates held sway in a 438-384 vote, adopting a Traditionalist Plan that affirmed language adopted in 1972 that holds that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” enacting harsher punishment for churches that perform gay marriages and ordain non-heterosexual clergy.

“There are parts of the church that are more progressive that are trying to find a way to form a new denomination if we are not allowed to practice ministry the way we feel is important to us,” said the Rev. Mark Fowler, pastor of First United Methodist Church. Located in downtown Madison on Wisconsin Avenue, it's one of the largest Methodist congregations in the state.

“It will make it difficult for this church to hold together if this is found to be within our United Methodist constitution,” he said.

The Rev. Harold Zimmick, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church on Madison's west side, didn't return several messages seeking comment. Asbury is regarded as one of the more conservative United Methodist churches in the area. 

The United Methodist Church is the third largest denomination in the state, behind the Catholic and the Lutheran churches. About 40 percent of the state’s 437 congregations lean liberal or progressive, according to church officials. That percentage runs much higher in Madison and Milwaukee.

The Rev. Brianna Illéné, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church on Madison’s near west side, said her congregation has about 65 members, about a third of whom identify as LGBTQ.

“We stand in defiance of that,” she said of the conference action. “We’re not going to change. We will continue to welcome LGTBQ+ people. We’re not going to stop doing weddings.”

Under provisions adopted at the conference, clergy who officiate at same-sex marriages could be suspended for a year without pay, and defrocked if they do it a second time.

Fowler called the punitive measures “a huge concern.”

“We repudiate the vote that was taken,” he said. “And we stand with many, many other churches, especially in the United States, who are allies in that struggle.”

The measures passed at the conference still need to be reviewed by the church’s Judicial Council, akin to a supreme court, to ensure that they conform with the United Methodist constitution. Similar provisions have been found unconstitutional in the past.

Arneson said the plan passed by the conference has deepened the divisions within the church that have festered since the anti-gay language was first inserted in the denomination’s rule book. Those decrees have been widely flouted by some congregations and unevenly enforced by church officials. Essentially, the church has operated under a don't-ask-don't-tell policy.

The progressive UMC wing, known as the Reconciling Ministries Network, advocates for full inclusion of LGBTQ members and clergy. The Reconciling Ministries website lists 18 Reconciling churches in Wisconsin, six of them in the Madison area.

“Even within our congregation, which we name as Reconciling, we have people on all ends and everywhere in between on the theological spectrum,” Arneson said, “and I am pastor to all of them.”

But her attention this week has been focused on those impacted by the vote.

“People who have expressed more their opinion to me are ones who are really struggling with this, either personally or family members or friends who are hurting,” she said.

The vote for the traditionalist plan is an indication of the growing clout of conservative African congregations, some in counties that criminalize homosexual acts. Those congregations have teamed up with conservative European and evangelicals in the U.S., where church membership is declining.

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In a statement, Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of the Wisconsin United Methodist Conference said, "We are a wounded church. We are a divided church. We are a church in pain, and we are doing harm to each other."

A supporter of the One Church Plan, Jung urged church members to work through its difficulties.

"With the exception of a small handful who only want to leave, the vast majority of people are still proud to be United Methodist and they are not ready to destroy the faithful and sacramental covenant that we share," he said.

The Rev. Dan Dick, is assistant to the bishop and one of six voting delegates from Wisconsin, all of whom opposed the traditionalist plan. He said the long contentious discussions on the LGBTQ issues produced a results that "left virtually no one happy."

He said the provisions adopted by the conference are likely to be found in violation of the church’s constitution when they are taken up by the judicial council in a session that begins on April 23.

“So we’re still in the limbo and disagreement that brought us there in the first place,” he said.

If the measures banning LGTBQ clergy and marriage hold, some are predicting a mass exodus by liberal and progressive congregations. But leaving the church comes with an array of financial complications. Church property and assets are held in trust by the denomination, not the congregations. 

“As a congregation we have sizable debt that we’re trying to pay down,” said Arneson. “There are a lot of pieces to what would need to happen, but certainly that would be part of our conversation.”

Regardless, Fowler said, measures passed at the conference that facilitate deaffiliation with the denomination could hasten the exodus, but those measures are also under review by the church’s judicial board.

“It’s up in the air as to what anybody will do,” he said. “This story will unfold in the next three to six months.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.