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A possible split in the United Methodist Church over LGBTQ issues won't mean big changes at local churches, pastors say.

COURTESY PHOTO: HILLSBORO UNITED METHODIST CHURCH - The Rev. Clay Andrew of the Hillsboro United Methodist Church performs a baptist ceremony.Three years ago this month, the Hillsboro United Methodist Church adopted a statement saying it welcomes all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The decision-making body of the United Methodist Church — an international denomination and the largest Protestant denomination in the United States — prohibits same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.

But the Hillsboro church's adoption of the statement, called a "reconciling statement," wasn't a "seismic moment," said the Rev. Clay Andrew, pastor of the church.

"It had been such a part of the ethos of this congregation that sometimes when people would hear we're not a reconciling congregation, they would go, 'We're not? I thought we were,'" Andrew said.

While a split within the United Methodist Church over LGBTQ inclusion appears more likely than ever, Andrew says there won't be much of an impact on the Hillsboro church or most others within the region.

The Oregon-Idaho Conference, the governing body of the church for the two states, has been a reconciling conference since 1996. Its board of ordained ministry said in 2016 that sexual orientation and gender identity wouldn't be a barrier to ordination.

Andrew would rather see the United Methodist Church stay whole. But if a split is inevitable — and he believes it is — then the result will be positive for Methodists and the LGBTQ community, he said.

In March, conservative church leaders unveiled plans to form a new denomination, called the Global Methodist Church, that would maintain rules prohibiting LGBTQ inclusion.

The move came after the United Methodist Church's general conference, where decisions are made that guide the international church, was postponed twice due to the pandemic.

It planned to once again debate rules over LGBTQ inclusion in 2020, and there was a hope that issues could be resolved, Andrew said.

The next general conference won't occur until August 2022.

With the postponements, years of simmering disagreements about the issue, and as more and more congregations — primarily in the United States — challenged the church's official doctrine, the issue came to a head.

COURTESY PHOTO: HILLSBORO UNITED METHODIST CHURCH - The Rev. Clay Andrew speaks during a service at the Hillsboro United Methodist Church.Andrew says if the debate was occurring solely in the United States, the United Methodist Church would have officially adopted LGBTQ-friendly rules a long time ago.

Liberal conferences in the United States outnumber conservative ones, which are mostly in the South, he said. However, some of the more socially conservative conferences abroad — there are Methodist strongholds in the Philippines and in several African countries — have formed majorities that pass anti-LGBTQ rules at general conferences.

Andrew said the debate is almost as old as the United Methodist Church, which was created in 1968.

"The folks who are advocating for full inclusion of LGBTQ folks are just really tired of what they see as an injustice against some of God's children," Andrew said. "Everybody feels like they're living in this limbo of this unresolved impossible situation. Everybody is wanting it to be done, I think."

He says a split in the church would have positive impacts, including LGBTQ clergy already in reconciling conferences not being subject to having complaints filed against them for breaking current church rules, which can lead to trials by church officials.

"It's new life," Andrew said. "When I imagine a church that is not anchored by other churches, other congregations who are saying, 'No, those folks aren't welcome,' or, 'No, you cannot ordain,' or, 'No, you cannot do a wedding,' boy, it sure is — it feels like a breath of fresh air."

The Rev. David King, pastor of the Forest Grove United Methodist Church, says he too would like to see the denomination officially adopt LGBTQ-friendly rules.

"I think that's super-important," King said.

But he's less convinced that a split is inevitable — mostly because there have been unsuccessful proposals at multiple previous general conferences that could have led to a split in the church.

"People make predictions on what's going to happen every single time," King said. "I would say the safe bet — the most likely thing that will happen at any time — is nothing at all. It's always easier to do nothing."

King became the pastor of the Forest Grove church in summer 2020 as the pandemic was in full swing.

He said with social distancing and getting to know the congregation, he hasn't had a lot of time to get a full sense of where the church's about 60 members stand on the issue.

The church does have openly gay members, King notes.

The Forest Grove church doesn't have a reconciling statement.

If there is a split within the larger church, the adoption of a reconciling statement might become moot as LGBTQ-friendly rules become part of normal United Methodist doctrine, King said.

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