By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—One of South Carolina’s oldest and largest United Methodist churches has joined the Reconciling Ministries Network.
Washington Street UMC Church Council voted unanimously July 29 to join the network, an unofficial caucus of United Methodists that promotes full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and other individuals in the life of the church.
The vote makes Washington Street the only reconciling congregation in the South Carolina Conference of the UMC, though there are at least 11 additional reconciling Sunday school classes and other communities in various UMCs across the state. Another church, Dunean UMC, a tiny mill church in Greenville, had voted to affiliate with RMN in 2012, but that church closed in 2017.
“Washington Street has been living out her welcome and affirmation of all people for over a decade,” said the Rev. Patricia Parrish, senior pastor of Washington Street. “This affiliation with Reconciling Ministries Network does not change who we are, but is a public declaration of our deep desire for change in The Book of Discipline and our commitment to seek the change we desire.”
Washington Street was established in 1803 and was the first Christian house of worship in Columbia. As it is a large and thriving congregation committed to both unity and diversity, church leaders believe Washington Street can serve as an example of how members can have different philosophies about LGBTQI and other issues and still be a family.
“I think we can be a leader in showing other United Methodists how to coexist,” said the Rev. Alston Lippert, Washington Street’s associate pastor.
A long conversation
Washington Street’s relationship with the RMN began 14 years ago, when its Grace Sunday school class became South Carolina’s first reconciling community.
“There was some conflict, but we had ongoing conversation around the issue,” said Nancy Whittle, a Washington Street member.
Later, an additional Sunday school class, the Active Faith Small Group, and two circles at Washington Street joined Grace in the RMN.
In 2014, the historic church launched Renewal 2020, a strategic planning process for the church’s future in tandem with a similar renaissance going on in Columbia’s downtown. The church held a number of listening sessions to help envision its future.
“We consistently heard ‘we value diversity’ over and over,” Whittle said, and the church ultimately approved an identity statement that reflected their appreciation for tradition, change and inclusion, welcoming “all who seek the love and mercy of Christ regardless of race, creed, age, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or economic status.”
Responding to GC2019
After the Traditional Plan passed at the special called session of General Conference in February, many in the church did not agree with the decision. The Traditional Plan maintains language in the current Book of Discipline that says the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching” and bars “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from ordination. The legislation also prohibits United Methodist clergy from officiating same-sex marriages, while also strengthening enforcement measures for violating prohibitions.
The Washington Street Church Council issued a response to the GC2019 action, noting in part, “As a congregation that embraces diversity and ongoing conversation, many members of our church find the decisions of the 2019 General Conference to be exclusionary, divisive and not expressive of the gospel message of love and grace for all humankind. We pray that God’s all-inclusive love will prevail. Washington Street UMC wants all people to know you are welcomed here by a God who loves you and wants a personal relationship with you. In our congregation, it does not matter what you believe (or doubt) or who you love. You are welcome.”
As part of that response, the church council also commissioned a General Conference Response Team to explore whether the church should affiliate with the RMN.
In June, Washington Street began a discernment process about this, holding informational sessions, setting up an independent email address where people could ask specific questions about inclusion and the RMN, and orchestrated what General Conference Response Team member Sam Waldrep called “straightforward, deliberate, methodical” communication.
An opportunity to listen, learn, share
“A deep concern of leadership was we wanted to hear every perspective, not just some,” Parrish said. “Of course, some people were not 100 percent in agreement with joining RMN, so we wanted to give them an opportunity to share, even anonymously.”
They knew another church in South Carolina, First Baptist Church of Greenville, had been through a similar discernment process, so they spent much time in dialogue with Dr. Jim Dant, First Baptist’s senior minister, to develop a process for Washington Street.
“Many people had concerns at the start—If we join the RMN, is it going against the Discipline? Does it mean we’ll do gay marriages?” Waldrep said. “We did a frequently asked questions document to address questions like these.”
Over the course of six weeks, from early June through July 14, the church hosted Sunday afternoon information sessions led by Dr. Melanie Dobson, assistant professor of Methodist studies at Lenoir-Rhyne's Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary who was trained in spiritual direction.
Each information session included a 20-30 minute talk on one of four different topics: Biblical perspectives on homosexuality; what does the Book of Discipline say about homosexuality; how Washington Street is living out its identity statement; and what is the RMN.
“It was not so much to give information but to give people the opportunity to respond and to give them a period to sit in quiet and listen to the Holy Spirit,” Parrish said.
Lippert said one of the most powerful parts of the information sessions was asking participants one word that came to mind in reaction to what they learned and what it was in their background that caused that word to come to mind.
“People started to recognize their own theology,” Lippert said.
“It was a very, very powerful experience,” Parrish agreed.
Final vote unanimous
In addition to the discernment sessions, Washington Street also held two congregational meetings and extensive conversations with homebound members and others who were not able to attend the sessions or meetings.
The final vote on whether to join the RMN, held in the Chapel, was taken by written ballot, not show of hands, so there would be no opportunity for peer pressure, Lippert said.
The unanimous vote was announced that night, eblasted to the full congregation and posted on Facebook.
After the vote, the church has continued its efforts to stay welcoming to all people and all voices. The month of August featured special themed worship weeks centered on unity, titled “Come Together at the Table.” The church also held one service all month instead of two separate services. Each week has featured a different element, from communion to baptism to service to fellowship.
Parrish said attendance has been up since the affiliation announcement, which has been heartening.
One more step in evolution
Whittle, who spoke for one of the discernment sessions, said the affiliation with RMN is one more step in Washington Street’s evolution.
“Historically, Washington Street UMC has stood up against social injustice,” Whittle said, noting that before the Civil War, slaves were said to have worshipped at the church along with slave owners. Washington Street also began a statewide evangelical outreach program for slaves on plantations. “That’s one of our important themes—Washington Street is a leader in standing against social injustice and oppression.”
Parrish called affiliation the “end of a conversation and a response to General Conference 2019 as an affirmation of who we are and who we want to be.”
Lippert added, “We value everyone.”
Indeed, church leaders were quick to note inclusion is not the only issue that unites Washington Street. The church is deeply committed to many avenues of Christian service and love, from their soup cellar that runs five days a week to their Sunday Dinners and Spanish language ministries.
Whittle applauds the way her church is standing in love with all people.
“It’s very special for me to feel love from so many members in this church. I also know it’s very special for many others, too,” she said.
Parrish said a lot of people think the Discipline is wrong in its stance on human sexuality. She said Washington Street’s decision was made in love out of a sincere desire for inclusiveness in Christ.
“I think Washington Street is at a very, very important time for her future,” Parrish added. “There was a lot of anxiety about the unfinished conversation, but now there is a sense of calm and peace, and the church family is feeling relief.”
For more on Washington Street, visit www.wsmethodist.org.
By Jessica Brodie