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Unanimous: Historic Washington Street UMC votes to join Reconciling Ministries

Unanimous: Historic Washington Street UMC votes to join Reconciling Ministries

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.

19 Comments

  • Washington Street, thank you for your vision and leadership in holding up the spirit and love of Christ to and for every person in the community and as a very positive example to other UMC churches. Your service and caring efforts show your love for Christ and for those whom many consider “the lease of these”. May God bless you even more!

  • What a wonderful testimony to the inclusive love of Christ; something that has always been central to the life and ministries at Washington Street. I am proud to be a member of this great church and encourage anyone in the midlands area to come visit and experience WSUMC for yourself.

    • ? I can not go against the Bible, God created man and women to create. I can not accept same sex couples as God,s future for us. I don,t judge them that,s up to God if there is anything to judge. Worship with them is one thing ,taking are Bible apart is another. I will not change God’s word or accept it being changed in anyway to suit today’s opinion

  • I am not a member of your church, but I am so proud of your love, compassion, and caring for all. I hope that in time all UMCs in the US will be reconciling. You are unusual for a church locate in the south but you as a church are doing what Jesus would have you do, accept all God’s people who love God and their neighbors as themselves.
    My husband and I live in the northeast and some of our churches are in Non-Compliance with the BoD.
    As it is now, 14 conferences are, also, in Non-Compliance with the BoD.
    Why should anyone’s gender identity or sexual orientation have to do with their competence?
    No one I know discusses what they do in the privacy of their bedroom, so why should sexual orientation or gender identity have anything to do with someone’s ability to be competent in their chosen profession.

  • Thank you! Yes, we can worship and serve Christ together even when we are different. You give me hope…!

  • Margaret j Porter,
    Which one of the more than 400 translations of the Bible are you referring to in your post. It would help if you had a biblical scholar give you the context of the verses that are used as Bible Darts. You may want to consider the following link re a bishop whose personal experience may be revealing.
    https://www.umnews.org/en/news/bishop-gay-daughter-sent-him-back-to-scriptures#.XWBw5SUSSRk.email
    You may want to consider that even the scripture says some eunuchs were born that way and realize that medical science knows that sexuality is not just binary. 🙏🏻ing for a revelation of light to know who is included in loving your neighbor.

  • Its heartbreaking that they have abandoned scripture. May God have mercy on their souls.

    • Yes, it is heartbreaking! But more that there are bishops who defend and give un-Christian meaning to the passages relating to homosexuality. Where is the UMC heading at?

  • Mike. Did you forget love one another as I love you.May God forgive your slanted view

    • Thanks for your post Mike. I’m reminded that some have no consciousness of the history of the church and erroneous interpretation of the scriptures. Do they even know about the Central Jurisdiction, the merger with the Evangelical Bretheran in the late ‘60s and then women were allowed to the take leadership roles in the church in direct contradiction to Paul’s biblical directive. We could go on and cite biblical exhortations that endorsed slavery, rape, murdering children, etc. MLK’s observation comes to mind..”The most dangerous person in the world is one who is sincerely ignorant and conscientiously stupid. You have a moral responsibility to be intelligent.” Truer words have never been spoken.

    • Yes, one should love all sinners and pray that they repent from their sins. What is so sad is to see those who embrace and celebrate sin.

  • I am opposed to same sex marriage. I am opposed to having church officials who are married to a same sex partner. I do not support allowing same sex marriages being performed in the United Methodist Church. I am opposed to abortion it is infanticide and murder.

    • What the Bible says about Abortion

      Abortion is not murder. A fetus is not considered a human life.
      If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life. — Exodus 21:22-23
      The Bible places no value on fetuses or infants less than one month old.
      And if it be from a month old even unto five years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male five shekels of silver, and for the female thy estimation shall be three shekels of silver. — Leviticus 27:6
      Fetuses and infants less than one month old are not considered persons.
      Number the children of Levi after the house of their fathers, by their families: every male from a month old and upward shalt thou number them. And Moses numbered them according to the word of the LORD. — Numbers 3:15-16
      And the LORD said unto Moses, Number all the firstborn of the males of the children of Israel from a month old and upward, and take the number of their names. — Numbers 3:40
      God sometimes approves of killing fetuses.
      And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? … Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. — Numbers 31:15-17
      (Some of the non-virgin women must have been pregnant. They would have been killed along with their unborn fetuses.)
      Give them, O LORD: what wilt thou give? give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts. — Hosea 9:14
      Yea, though they bring forth, yet will I slay even the beloved fruit of their womb. — Hosea 9:16
      Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up. — Hosea 13:16
      God sometimes kills newborn babies to punish their parents.
      Because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die. — 2 Samuel 12:14
      God sometimes causes abortions by cursing unfaithful wives.
      The priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell. And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen. …
      And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed. — Numbers 5:21-21, 27-28
      God’s law sometimes requires the execution (by burning to death) of pregnant women.
      Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt. — Genesis 38:24
      OMG!

    • Mrs. Betty Bowers (America’s Best Christian)
      @BettyBowers
      Hey, kids! You know what book, not about Harry Potter, also has spells and potions? The Bible!

      In Numbers 5:15-22, the Lord gives us the recipe for a magic potion to perform abortions on mommies who don’t even want them. Glory!

      Do not try this at home!

      https://twitter.com/BettyBowers/status/1168679941044670465?s=20

    • Winston Ebarb, I agree with your statements. I don’t know why these progressives think that God got it wrong when we held the international conference, prayed and meditated on the subject for several days, then voted for the Traditional Plan. They apparently know so much more. They will push and push until they get their way and force it on the rest of us. The only real vote I get is where I give my money. This year I will finish my pledge to the General Fund, but next year I will find a cause that does not send money to “Big Methodist” since those people do not agree with my views and are working against my wishes. If the next Conference votes the Traditional Plan down, then I will leave the church that I have attended for 62 years and find a place that I feel is in line with the Bible. It is sad to see where the Methodist Church is going.

  • I am so encouraged by the boldness of this South Carolina church! Thank you for your witness of love above dogma. You are inspiring to other UMCs struggling with interpretation of scripture and reconciling that with Christ’s command to love one another.

    • So sad

  • I’m supposed to believe Gods words except what He says about men laying with men. Anyone that changes a word in the Bible will not be forgiven. REVELATION 22- 19.

  • Mrs. Betty Bowers (America’s Best Christians) puts it into perspective.

    https://twitter.com/BettyBowers/status/1121778372219162624?s=20

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