QUINCY -- The Rev. Patty Johansen is uncertain what lies ahead for the United Methodist Church.
Johansen, who pastors the Vermont Street United Methodist Church in Quincy, was among those in St. Louis last week when the denomination's specially called General Conference voted to maintain its traditional stance against same-sex marriage and non-celibate gay clergy.
The denomination currently bans clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings or being self-avowed practicing homosexuals, but a number of United Methodists have publicly defied those restrictions in recent years.
The decisions that emerged from the St. Louis conference could ultimately lead to the exit of many of the more liberal UMC pastors and churches from the second-largest U.S. Protestant denomination.
The Vermont Street church is the largest UMC congregation in the region with 650 members and an average weekly attendance of about 215.
"There was a sense of sadness that (the conference) could not find a way, a way to be one United Methodist Church," Johansen told The Herald-Whig.
The General Conference adopted what was termed the "Traditional Plan" during the four-day St. Louis confab held to address the issue of human sexuality. The plan passed, with 53 percent of the delegates voting to preserve existing UMC positions and adding more accountability measures for pastors and their churches who violate current restrictions connected with performing same-sex ceremonies or ordaining gay clergy.
The Traditional Plan was favored by voters over the "One Church Plan."
"If the ‘One Church' plan, which two-thirds of the American delegates favored, had passed, churches would have been free to decide on the way they wished to interpret Scripture with regard to this issue," a United Methodist pastor, who asked to not be identified, told The Herald-Whig. "They could be restrictive, if they chose, or more inclusive. But the votes that pushed what was called the ‘Traditional Plan' over the top came from Africa, Russia and the Philippines."
Christianity Today magazine reported Methodists from outside the U.S., who tend to favor more traditional positions on sexuality, made up 41 percent of the General Conference's 864 delegates. African delegates made up 30 percent of the voting body.
Johansen, who was not a voting delegate in St. Louis, said Methodists "have struggled with this issue for 40 years." Johansen said she felt there was an air of disappointment and concern at the conference once the Traditional Plan was approved.
‘We love all folks'
Johansen feels if it had been just American and European delegates voting, the One Church Plan would have passed, but with the ballot being a global issue, the votes from third-world countries, particularly Africa, helped approve the Traditional Plan.
"You can be jailed for life in parts of Africa for being gay," Johansen said.
Johansen does not feel there will be any major local impact, even if the Traditional Plan is formalized -- as expected -- in late April. If adopted, it would go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.
"We love all folks," she said of her church's stance.
Johansen said she is confident some Methodists are beginning to look at the future.
"People who are centrists, including left- and right-leaning centrists ... are beginning to think about next steps," she said. "We saw a depth of connection among centrist delegates and bishops who gathered together after the vote of the General Conference, persons who supported the One Church plan, which was defeated.
"I think it's likely we will see a new form of Methodism that allows differing understandings of Scripture around human sexuality. A church that makes room for all, including those on the far left, the vast center and the far right."
The big picture
Vermont Street member Clif Weisinger feels the United Methodist Church might be on the cusp of a new age of acceptance. He said the gay issue is not a major stumbling block for younger generations, and those generations are the future of the church.
"More than anything, I don't feel that God is done with us yet," Weisinger said. "The church is going to look different (in the future) but will definitely be stronger."
Gary Livesay, also a member at Vermont Street and a chaplain at Chaddock, is another who feels change is coming. And, like Johansen, he noted the issue of gay acceptance has been a part of church debate for decades.
"I look forward to the day when this is not an issue," Livesay said. Johansen said she is "clinging to hope" in regard to the future.
"I am committed to working for transformation from within ... my prayer is that we all keep the big picture in front of us and love like Jesus does," Johansen said.
‘A lot of people' hurt
The Rev. Mick Laflin, who pastors the Pittsfield United Methodist Church, said he "felt many in the area were hurt by the decision."
"Many wish it had gone the other way," Laflin said. "We will continue to welcome all."
Laflin said he will be working with his congregation of about 140 to develop a better understanding of the situation.
The Rev. Stacie Williams of Arch United Methodist Church in Hannibal, Mo., declined any official comment on the ruling, feeling it will not be until later in the year when a truer picture may unfold.
Williams thinks it may be sometime in the summer "until there is some clarity to what might happen next."
Defying the rules
The Rev. Jonathan Henley, a UMC pastor who writes a column for the Morganton (N.C.) News-Herald, noted that since the 1972 General Conference, the UMC has said all people are of sacred worth, but "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
"More restrictions were added by subsequent gatherings of the international denomination's top lawmaking assembly," Henley wrote. "In recent years, as homosexuality gained more public acceptance in the U.S. and other parts of the church, a number of United Methodists -- including whole conferences -- have publicly defied these rules."
Henley reported as a result of the 2016 General Conference, after rumors of a church split over homosexuality "reached a fever pitch," both the One Church and Traditional plans began to emerge.
The General Conference normally meets every four years and is comprised of delegates from United Methodist regional conferences from around the world. Only a General Conference can decide the official position of the denomination. No bishop, pastor, congregation or other entity has the authority to speak for the entire denomination.