This continues the series on the dramatic liberalization of the United Methodist Church in the American South. Part 1 reported on how the new liberalism has become dominant across America, even in both the South Central and Southeastern Jurisdictions, and how no conservative congregation or sub-region can expect to be left alone. Part 2 outlined how the United Methodist disobedience movement has now spread to the highest levels of leadership among Southeastern United Methodists. Part 3 provided all-in-one place documentation for how the new liberalism is shaping every non-missionary Southeastern United Methodist Conference. Part 4 below documents how the United Methodist disobedience movement has also established new de facto realities of liberalized sexuality standards in the South Central Jurisdiction.
American United Methodism used to be characterized by extreme regional differences. Dominant views and even effective doctrinal and moral standards differed so widely between regions that it was hard to believe that different annual conferences were part of the same denomination.
But now the United Methodist disobedience to longstanding UMC rules banning gay weddings and non-celibate gay clergy is no longer limited to a few liberal regions.
Earlier, we documented how even in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, the United Methodist disobedience movement has established gay weddings and non-celibate gay ministers as part of the new de facto reality of Southern United Methodism.
This United Methodist disobedience movement has also now taken hold in the South Central Jurisdiction (Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebrasksa, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas).
Growing numbers of longtime United Methodists now ask why they should be expected to continue to trust and submit to a denominational system whose leaders will not follow their own rules (rules the congregations pay them rather lavishly to uphold).
Throughout the United Methodist South Central Jurisdiction, it has already become the norm for the bishop to fail (or refuse?) to uphold church law in the areas of defending basic biblical doctrine, holding fellow bishops accountable, and not letting congregations unlawfully affiliate with the LGBTQIA+ activist Reconciling Ministries Network.
In the South Central Jurisdiction, major lines of disobedience have now been crossed in the majority of its eight bishops’ areas.
I have not prepared a comprehensive list of violations of the UMC’s supposedly governing Book of Discipline violations. But these examples indicate how United Methodist disobedience is creating a new liberalized de facto reality in even the formerly moderate South Central Jurisdiction.
The on-paper rules forbidding gay weddings and non-celibate gay clergy now have a diminishing practical impact in this region, as in the rest of American United Methodism.
The 2019 session of the Great Plains Annual Conference (Kansas and Nebraska) adopted resolutions to not only support liberalizing church standards on sexuality, but also to support the “commitments” of Adam Hamilton’s UMC Next caucus. This included declaring, about the set of moral standards and enforcement policies properly adopted at the last General Conference, that this annual conference will “resist its implementation.”
Another resolution adopted by a strong majority that year committed $20,000 of conference funds to grants for the sake of promoting LGBTQIA+ activists “as missional leaders in the annual conference.” It is highly unlikely that any grants from this fund would lift up for leadership someone who is same-sex-attracted but committed to biblical orthodoxy and so lives and teaches the value of lifelong celibacy, or to any ministries among the LGBTQIA+ community that encourage that perspective. It strains credibility to deny that supporters of this resolution did not at all intend to “promote the acceptance of homosexuality,” even though using annual conference funds for this purpose is expressly prohibited by UMC Discipline Paragraph 613.20.
If theologically orthodox United Methodists object to such use of their annual conference’s funds, they are offered little recourse other than leaving the UMC. It’s the liberal majority’s way or the highway.
All of this may also be said about the 2019 session of the Missouri Conference similarly committing up to $30,000 of annual conference funds on grants to “assist ministries for the LGBTQIA+ community, or by lifting up persons from that community into missional leadership.”
Furthermore, The Gathering UMC in St. Louis publicly declares on its weddings page: “Regardless of your sexual orientation, The Gathering joins you in celebrating your commitment to marriage. We are excited to help make your wedding day a special one.” Given this congregation being one of the conference’s largest, the prominence of its pastor Matt Miofsky, and the fact that its website has had this language for at least four years, Missouri Conference leaders cannot credibly claim to have been unaware. So even without the Discipline changing, Missouri United Methodist congregations are already free to advertise their willingness to host same-sex weddings.
Lest there be any doubt about what was meant by Discipline Paragraph 304.3’s longstanding requirement that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church,” the 2019 General Conference explicitly defined “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” to include, but not be limited to, anyone who “is living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union.”
And yet it seems that the present climate of the Rio Texas Conference, under the leadership of Bishop Robert Schnase (who also oversees the New Mexico Conference) is such that the Rev. Ashley Valenzuela, pastor of St. Mark UMC in Austin, feels no concern about facing consequences for publicly “outing” herself on her congregation’s website as an openly partnered lesbian. In her bio, she openly shares, “Outside of St. Mark, you can find me with my wife Giselle and our two boys.”
As a part-time local pastor (see page 2), Rev. Valenzuela could be removed from her pastorate relatively quickly, if relevant conference officials had any interest in keeping their promises to uphold the church’s standards.
In the Oklahoma Conference, I have recently been made aware of two same-sex weddings within the last year, with evidently no accountability.
On April 15, the Facebook account of Crown Heights UMC in Oklahoma City posted an apparent same-sex wedding photo, declaring “Congratulations to the happy couple, Brett and Luke! Today was a beautiful day celebrating love,” with comments referencing the “wedding.”
That same day, one of the grooms posted a similar picture and a wedding-reception a video from Crown Heights UMC, and also a picture of two men standing in the front of a church sanctuary (which sure looks like that of Crown Heights UMC), holding hands, for a ceremony officiated by someone who sure looks like Crown Heights UMC Pastor Trina Bose North. (In reposting this, I have blocked out the last name of the man, to lessen the attention drawn to someone I regard as a victim of pastoral misleading.) Crown Heights UMC’s wedding policy requires “Only a United Methodist pastor can officiate” weddings held in its sanctuary.
Lest there be any doubt, I emailed Bose North directly, asking, among other things, if she could confirm or deny that she officiated this gay wedding. If it was not, that would have been very simple for her to say. Instead, she offered a non-denial. The entirety of her response:
I don’t think we have met. We don’t know each other. Nor am I interested in getting to know you.
I will not be answering your questions. I am too busy building up the Body of Christ for the transformation of the world.
Rev. Bose North
In another incident, I recently obtained a digital copy of a marriage license, from the district court of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, for the marriage of two men, both of Oklahoma City, signed by Jeni Markham Clewell for May 14, 2022. On the marriage certificate, Clewell identifies herself as a retired United Methodist minister. She is indeed listed as such in the Oklahoma Conference clergy directory.
I would be happy to share this license with any Oklahoma Conference leaders interested in upholding the UMC’s rules.
In the unlikely event that Oklahoma Bishop Nunn was unaware of either of these gay weddings, he has now been made aware by emails I have sent to him and his assistants. However, as of this writing, he has not replied to my inquiry about what accountability, if any, there has been.
It was widely noted that one Arkansas United Methodist minister, Dr. Rebekah Miles, reportedly officiated a same-sex wedding in spring 2022. Someone shared with me this screenshot from social media, and another, and a third. Reportedly, Bishop Gary Mueller (who declined to comment for this article) was made aware of this several months before his December retirement, and said that he was “handling it.” But across the subsequent year, I am told that Dr. Miles offered no public apology nor pledge to refrain from further such rule-breaking. I have not seen any public statement from the Arkansas Conference leadership, under neither Mueller nor his successor Bishop Laura Merrill, acknowledging the harm done by this violation and exhorting other Arkansas clergy to not do likewise.
Last spring, Miles transferred her clergy membership to the Denver-based Mountain Sky Annual Conference (see page 9), apparently without physically moving out there. That conference’s lesbian activist Bishop Karen Oliveto is guaranteed to prevent any accountability for violations of the Discipline’s homosexuality-related standards.
So this Arkansas United Methodist disobedience has established an effective reality in which a South Central Jurisdiction minister can publicly violate the Discipline’s ban on gay weddings, face no clear accountability, and continue to training future United Methodist clergy as the Susanna Wesley Centennial Professor of Practical Theology and Ethics, at the UMC’s apportionment-funded Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. Now as a Mountain Sky Conference minister, still living within the South Central Jurisdiction, Miles is effectively free to do all the gay weddings she wants.
Where is the accountability in that?
There are numerous recent instances of United Methodist disobedience in North Texas.
The Rev. Phil Dieke posted on May 21 about officiating a wedding between two women, using the pro-same-sex-marriage hashtag “#loveislove.” When I emailed Dieke for comment, he also replied with a non-denial, simply saying “I am not interested in participating in an article published by the IRD.”
Dieke is a prominent conference leader, having recently become chair of the North Texas board of church and society.
Beginning 2018, at least two North Texas congregations, Oak Lawn UMC in Dallas and St. Stephen UMC in Mesquite, have had formal policies of hosting same-sex weddings, with no evident accountability. Remember, Discipline Paragraph 341.6 has since 1996 not only prohibited ministers from officiating “[c]eremonies that celebrate homosexual unions,” but also mandated that such ceremonies “shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” Speaking for the latter congregation, the Rev. Roy Atwood defending this move as “standing against the oppression of LGBT people in the United Methodist Church.”
Last year’s annual conference session included the decision to fully ordain Atwood as an elder (see pages 7, 11, 81/189, 92/200, 98/206, 183/291, 197, 305. 247/355), despite his previous admission of living in a same-sex partnership. In a brief 2019 sermon, he publicly shared that he was in “a domestic partnership with someone who happens to be a dude” and that the Discipline’s new rules require him to be denied for ministry (beginning around the 5-minute mark), but credited his approval for ministry to “a bunch of people on a committee who were willing to quietly break church rules” (beginning around the 4-minute mark).
Lest there be any misunderstanding, I contacted Atwood directly to ask about his personal commitment to, from now on, live within the biblical moral boundaries currently outlined in the Discipline. His response: “My ordination in the North Texas Conference speaks for itself, and I have no need to justify my qualifications. As you know, the Discipline forbids self-avowed practicing homosexuals from being ordained. I am not a practicing homosexual. I don’t need the practice.”
This is hardly the clearest answer, but seems in line with Atwood’s mocking the qualifier about practicing homosexuals by declaring in his Twitter profile that he is “so good at being gay that I don’t need to practice.”
The North Texas 2022 annual conference summary report awkwardly makes a point of refusing to confirm or deny if its “clergy session approve[d] any openly gay candidates for ministry,” declaring, “The board of ordained ministry does not ask candidates their orientation.” But Discipline Paragraph 304.5 expressly requires those screening clergy candidates to conduct “full examination and thorough inquiry” into ministry candidate’s compliance with the Discipline’s standards, including its prohibition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” ministers, and strongly forbids the approval of non-compliant candidates.
This is not the only example of North Texas officials failing to uphold the Discipline’s ministry standards. Last year, outsized attention was lavished on how the aforementioned Oak Lawn UMC declared that it was “self-appointing” (i.e., directly hiring) two gay individuals, Isabel Marquez and Ryan Wager, as part of its staff.
The bigger issue is how, as made clear in a June 2022 interview and elsewhere, these individuals were both “gay and in long-term committed relationships but nevertheless (as confirmed in the Conference Journal) were “approved by the District Committee on Ministry and approved in the clergy session of the annual conference.”
A 2022 newspaper article shared that well before then, “Wager has been in a relationship with his partner for nine years” and “Marquez has been with her wife for more than 20 years.” Discipline Paragraphs 304.3 and 304.5 could hardly be clearer that such openly same-sex partnered individuals “are not to be certified as candidates,” and must not be approved or recommended for ministry candidacy or licensing.
And it could hardly be clearer that the North Texas Conference is operating by a different set of rules.
Another North Texas Conference minister, Gregory Neal, unlawfully wed his same-sex partner in October. Then-Bishop Mike McKee suspended Neal from his pastorate but held further accountability “in abeyance,” even though this abeyance was itself contrary to church law.
However, as noted, Neal has now been reinstated in ministry, pastoring a United Methodist congregation in Iowa. In an email, the North Texas Conference office confirmed that “When the Cabinet of the North Texas Conference opted not to appoint Rev. Neal to a local church inside the conference bounds, it supported his pursuit of an appointment in the Iowa Annual Conference and his desire to transfer his conference membership,” and that this transfer “has been requested and is currently in progress.” As long as the transfer is still in progress, however, Neal remains a member of the North Texas Conference (and as of this writing, is still included in that conference’s clergy directory).
There are many faithful Christians who find themselves attracted to the same sex, through no choice of their own, but who are theologically orthodox and live within biblical boundaries. Some serve faithfully in ministry, practicing lifelong celibacy, defending biblical standards, and being careful in how they speak about their attractions, so as to avoid being a stumbling block.
It is hard to see any hint of such restraint in the out-and-proud approach of North Texas Conference LGBTQ activist clergy like Rachel Griffin or Jane Graner.
Griffin self-identifies as a “queer pastor.” The aforementioned LGBTQ activism of Oak Lawn UMC, where she is senior pastor, is touted on its website.
Graner brags about becoming, in 2019, “the first openly LGBTQ+ person ordained in The United Methodist Church anywhere in the southern United States.” Reportedly, “Graner, while outspoken about being gay, has been single since her 28-year-partnership with another woman ended some years back,” so McKee defended her ordination as not technically breaking the rules. But she declared at the time of her ordination, “My goal has always been to change the United Methodist Church from within.”
Lest there be any misunderstanding, I also emailed Griffin and Graner, asking the same two basic questions about their commitment to live within the Discipline’s biblical boundaries, as long as the Discipline remained unchanged, or as a matter of principle, regardless of what the Discipline says. Unlike Atwood, neither woman responded.
However, I received an email from Cynthia Astle, editor of the aggressively liberal “UM Insight” website, sharing that she “was recently contacted by some United Methodist LGBTQ clergy and their district superintendents” who “told me they felt the letters and inquiries were intrusive and inappropriate.” She even suggested that I may somehow be guilty of “invasion of privacy or harassment.”
UM Insight is hardly a fair-minded, reliable news outlet. It is sponsored by St. Stephen UMC in Mesquite, Texas, which recently withheld apportionments in protest of the partial, temporary accountability for Gregory Neal. It blatantly misrepresented the truth about myself and matters related to the UMC in Nigeria in a 2021 article.
But what’s striking is the reported behavior of one or more North Texas Conference district superintendents. It is one thing for them to support liberalizing the Discipline through the proper channels. It is another for any top conference official to be so committed to championing the cause of envelope-pushing gay activist clergy that they would seek help from such a questionable source. Why? In order to shield activist clergy from the natural, expected concerns these clergy choose to raise with conservative United Methodist laypeople like me.
It is beyond disingenuous to cry foul at my paying attention when some choose to provocatively call attention to themselves as LGBTQ United Methodist pastors.
The integrity of the UMC system is lacking when those set apart as clergy and conference leaders create new facts on the ground by openly breaking the rules, with no accountability. Integrity is lacking when bishops are unwilling to publicly challenge such United Methodist disobedience. And it is lacking when United Methodist clergy display an attitude that they can provocatively show or suggest their disloyalty to the church’s standards and then owe no explanation to United Methodist laity.