News and Views

BWC delegates react to historic vote

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By Erik Alsgaard

Today, May 1, 2024, is the Rev. Leo Yates' wedding anniversary. He and his husband received an anniversary gift today: the removal of some language in the church’s Book of Discipline, from paragraph 304.3, which states in part that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The General Conference also removed the ban on "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from being ordained.

An ordained Deacon in The United Methodist Church, he serves as Accessibility and Inclusivity Coordinator for the Baltimore-Washington Conference and as pastor at Magothy United Methodist Church of the Deaf. He is here at General Conference serving as one of the Deaf interpreters for delegates and visitors.

That language, which had been in effect since 1984, was deleted from the Disciple by action of the 2024 General Conference meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina. Approved on the consent calendar without debate, the vote was 692 yes, 51 no.

“I feel like this is a year of jubilee,” Yates said. “This has been a long time coming. So many of us have lived under this yoke and have waited for this to be removed.”

Yates, who is married to the Rev. Giovanni Arroyo, said that his husband is also happy about the results. Arroyo serves as General Secretary of the General Commission on Religion and Race and is a clergy delegate to General Conference from the BWC.

“Of all the days for this to pass,” Yates said. “I’ll probably cry when I get back to the hotel.”

Other members of the BWC delegation shared their reactions to the historic vote, including the Rev. Ginger-Gaines Cirelli, senior pastor at Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C., who was still processing her thoughts as the session broke for lunch.

“I’ve been in a state of shock,” she said. “Everyone’s processing this vote … I feel overwhelmed with joy and gratitude, and I’m feeling a lot of emotion around those who have been a part of this work over so many years.”

Gaines-Cirelli said that she will tell her church this Sunday that “this was a decision we always knew was in God’s mind, and that we have been able, by grace, to live a little glimpse of that vision that now the whole church gets to experience.

“We always knew our words had theological authority,” she said, “but now they have legislative authority. There are protections in place for people to do the things that God calls them to do, which is love all people and welcome, include, and support people in their lives and loves.”

Chris Schlieckert, a lay delegate who serves as Director of Retreat and Camping Ministry for the conference, said the experience was amazing.

“It was something that we’ve been working toward for a long time,” he said. However, he added, the work here at General Conference isn’t done yet.

“This was just one piece of all the changes that we’re trying to make,” he said. “We still need to remove the language from the Social Principles, we still need to remove the chargeable offenses, but I’m excited.”

“These pieces were humongous,” said Gaines-Cirelli. “They’re huge. We can finally give the church the opportunity to live into the thing that we say we want to do and be, which is to truly be a church for all people.”

The Rev. Tony Hunt, a clergy member of the BWC delegation, serves as pastor at Epworth Chapel UMC in Baltimore, and also served as chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry from 2016 to 2021. He, too, is excited.

“This has been a long journey for us,” he said, “working for full inclusion and full justice in the church. For our Boards of Ordained Ministry, for our clergy, for our members, I’m really excited.”

Hunt said that what happened at General Conference moved the church closer to being God’s church, but that that work never truly ends.

For several of his years on the Board of Ordained Ministry, Hunt said that they stood in a position of “radical disobedience with parts of the Book of Discipline that were exclusive of all our siblings. We feel that we pushed our conference to be closer towards inclusivity.”

The Rev. Laura Norvell, pastor of Faith UMC in Rockville, is attending General Conference as an observer and helper with the Love Your Neighbor Coalition.

“I feel like, today, the church was very good at being the church,” she said, “at being fully inclusive, at really embracing love as a primary value.”

She said a “spirit of ‘yes’” has been truly present at this General Conference, one that is noticeable. Norvell hopes this same spirit also extends to financial matters yet to be voted on.

“I hope that we can adopt a spirit of generosity and abundance,” she said, “to tighten up these conversations that are rooted in scarcity. Every time we talk about money, we freeze and tighten ourselves.”

Tracy Collins, a first-time lay delegate from Foundry UMC, said his thoughts turned to how the church is turning into the mainstream.

“By ordaining gay clergy… (and having) pastors who are willing to do gay marriages, we won’t be doing something subversive,” he said. “We’re moving in tune with our communities where our churches are centered.”

Even as more work remains at this General Conference, Collins is hopeful that the church will continue to “lean in” to being more open and welcoming.

Born and raised in an African American expression of Methodism, Collins said it was important for The United Methodist Church to lead the way on these items.

“I really feel like for those other denominations to come along, especially the African American denominations to come along, the Methodist ‘parent’ denomination needs to get this right.”

"It's an historic day in the life of our denomination," said the Rev. Dawn Hand, superintendent of the Central Maryland district and Dean of the Cabinet. "The previous language which stated that 'the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching' has caused anguish and harm to so many people across our denomination.

"Yet, laity and clergy have been deeply faithful in living into the baptism vows to support the church through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness," Hand said. "I celebrate and rejoice that people can be ordained and can celebrate same-gender unions without fear of retribution. It's a new day to fully live into God's amazing love for all people."