The upcoming annual conference for United Methodist churches in the region marks a definitive step and possible signal for the future of the denomination.
The Holston Conference meeting, which includes churches in the Chattanooga area, involves electing regional delegates to the 2020 General Conference, the faith's international legislative session held every four years. Decisions made at the meeting that begins June 9 in Haywood County, North Carolina, could affect whether the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States will survive or fracture.
The annual conference next spring will come a year after a special session in February that was a boiling point after decades of debate in the Methodist faith over its stance on gender and sexuality. During the special meeting, the international body voted to adopt the Traditional Plan, which stiffens and enforces rules on gender and sexuality, including banning LGBTQ members of clergy and prohibiting same-sex marriage.
The Traditional Plan was adopted over the One Church plan, which the UMC Council of Bishops had supported and would have allowed individual churches and conferences to decide whether to ordain or marry LGBTQ people, something churches had been doing previously.
Since the decision, churches across the country have opposed the rule change, set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. In May, hundreds of Methodists gathered in Kansas for the UMC Next conference to create a unified strategy to reject the Traditional Plan and state their intention to create an affirming church in the Methodist tradition by either reforming the UMC or leaving it. This month, the North Texas Conference ordained its jurisdiction's first openly LGBTQ person.
St. Elmo United Methodist Church in Chattanooga is among those taking a stance against the Traditional Plan and risking excommunication from the denomination if the rules are upheld and enforced. In April, the church adopted a statement affirming the ordination of LGBTQ clergy, supporting same-sex marriage and full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in all aspects of the church.
The church, located south of downtown, has been a home for partners Keith Walker and Danny Tullier for years. The two each said they grew up in conservative churches where they were not accepted and strayed from faith in their late teens. St. Elmo's openness to the LGBTQ community was an opportunity to return to Christianity.
Seeing the Traditional Plan decision and the reversal of progress was devastating, Walker said.
"It put salt on the already opened wound because it felt like, finally, the wounds that were created by the church were beginning to heal," he said. "But the GC 2019 special meeting in February really opened those [wounds] and put a little salt in it."
Tullier said the 2019 resolution is antithetical to the faith since it calls for schism among the church body rather than unity. The New Testament focuses on unity more than any other topic, he said. The goal of the 2020 meeting should be to reunite the fracturing church.
"Our hope is reformation in the church, greater revival in the church," he said.
The moves of dissent from churches, like the one in Texas, are hopeful signs for the future of the denomination as an increasing number of centrist churches and conferences move to support those on the more liberal end of the denomination, Tullier said.
Tullier, a voting delegate in the Holston Conference, said he will vote for candidates to the General Conference who support the idea of unity. The Holston Conference will elect 12 representatives — six members of clergy and six non-clergy — for the General Conference.
This year's regional meeting is also a chance to make church members and leaders, especially in more conservative areas than Chattanooga, aware of how communities such as St. Elmo's reacted to the 2019 ruling, Tullier said.
"We have to be very thoughtful in the message we provide but name the harm that happened in GC 2019," he said.
St. Elmo is committed to being an affirming place for people regardless of sexual orientation, gender or race, said Gary Ihfe, St. Elmo lead pastor. He said the church held that stance long before the 2019 decision and will continue to do so, regardless of any future General Conference ruling. The church is guided by God and scripture, he said.
"I want our denomination to be a place where all people can come and hear the salvation that God offers to them," Ihfe said. "I want them to see God is working in a variety of people and I would love our [denomination] to recognize how God has been working in the LGBTQ community for years, for decades, even if it has been blind to us in the past. The [holy] spirit has been more inclusive than we have."
The debate in the Methodist church over gender and sexuality began 47 years ago and has been a regular topic at general conferences since. The denomination's Book of Discipline, the guiding set of rules and beliefs for the church, states the church "does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching" and bars the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals."
Local members of the faith felt the effects of the church's ban on clergy performing same-sex weddings in 2018 when St. Elmo assistant pastor Anna Gollady had her license rescinded for performing a ceremony.
Craig Green, Tennessee chapter representative for the Wesleyan Covenant Association, said the division over gender and sexuality has never been this pronounced. The Wesleyan Covenant Association is a group of orthodox Methodists supporting a church split.
"We've come to the place where there is no middle," Green said. "There are two irreconcilable opinions. I have friends who continue to think, 'Gee, can't we all get along?' I have come to the honest conclusion and that answer is 'No.'"
Green said a split would be more favorable than what he said would be a "bloodbath" in the 2020 meeting.
Both sides of the political religious aisle are preparing for a possible split, which could happen if churches choose to be noncompliant to the new rules or if 2020 delegates pass reversals to the hardline rules that conservative church bodies reject.
But the majority of Methodists — those in the pews on a given Sunday who attend church regularly but are not involved in church leadership — do not realize how close the faith is to an implosion, Green said.
Walker said he is not letting himself be worried about a split because he is committed to being a Christian in a church that affirms his identity, regardless of whether it is part of the UMC.
"I've spent too much of my life running and hiding and not being who I am and worrying about things not in my control," he said. "It's refreshing to see good Christian people out there willing to stand up for what is right. So, if a split is going to happen, it's going to happen."