By Joyce Coronel
A Tempe congregation is mourning a decision by the United Methodist Church’s General Conference to continue its ban on same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate gay clergy.
The action, which occurred at this year’s conference in St. Louis, Mo., caused an outpouring of sorrow at Dayspring United Methodist Church.
In a telephone interview with Wrangler News, the Rev. Jeff Procter-Murphy, Dayspring’s pastor, spoke of how disappointed he was in the conference vote.
“As a lifelong United Methodist, I am mourning for our denomination. It remains to be seen what’s going to happen to it, but it looks like we have irreconcilable differences.”
Based on the reactions of congregants posting on Facebook, there appeared to be near unanimous agreement with Procter-Murphy among the members of Dayspring.
He made it clear the ruling isn’t about the culture war—it’s about the lives of those impacted.
“For one thing, it’s not an issue. We’re talking about people,” Procter-Murphy said. “It’s putting a face on what for many people is an issue and yet they come to find out their sons and daughters and aunts and uncles are LGBT.”
At Dayspring, he noted, LGBT members are involved at “all levels of participation,” including leadership and ministry. The same is true, he said, in other churches “whether they know it or not.” The difference, he said, is that at his church, “people are free to be themselves without fear of judgment.”
A brochure at the entrance to Dayspring’s office attests to the congregation’s commitment to serving the gay community. The rainbow-colored Dayspring PRIDE leaflet states that it is “A welcoming and supportive ministry for LGBTQ persons and allies.”
Just hours after the denomination’s General Conference voted to uphold the LGBT ban, Procter-Murphy reacted by draping black fabric over the sign in front of the church that faces Elliot Road in South Tempe. He called for a prayer vigil and parishioners responded, about two dozen faithful sitting, mostly in silence, inside the darkened sanctuary in silence that afternoon.
Celia Adams attended the vigil alongside her husband Ben and 6-year-old daughter. “We’re not a prejudiced community. That’s not what we’re about,” Adams said as the family got into its mini-van afterward.
The Rev. Brooke Isingoma, pastor of St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Mesa, attended the vigil along with her 9-year-old son Landon. She described the decision by the wider church as an “emotional blow” but says she’s “skeptical that most of the things that were voted on will actually come to fruition” due to United Methodist Church having a judicial arm that could rule the decision unconstitutional.
Two thirds of the U.S. delegates to the General Conference voted for inclusion of the LGBT community, Procter-Murphy said.
“The Bible Belt delegates and those from Africa carried the day. In Africa there are places where the practice of homosexuality, if it’s still not a capital offense, it was in recent times.”
In any case, Procter-Murphy has no plans to scale down his church’s support of the LGBT community. Dayspring has around 1,150 members, with about 550 who worship on Sundays. Arizona is part of a “non-conforming annual conference” that he says will not abide by the decision made at the General Conference for the worldwide church.
“There are non-conforming annual conferences that will not abide by exclusive and punitive measures toward LGBT persons. Our conference is one,” Procter-Murphy said.
The day following the historic vote, Dayspring’s Facebook page reflected the community’s sorrow. “The sad demise of a denomination,” the post was titled. More than 100 people commented, expressing grief and disappointment at the General Conference’s decision.
“Dayspring is on the right side of history in this moment,” one person wrote. “All people are worthy of the church’s love and protection and all should be eligible to fully participate in its good works.”
So what does Procter-Murphy say to those who contend the Bible forbids homosexual behavior?
“There are factions who want to profess to a more literal interpretation of the Bible and cling to six isolated passages in Scripture that question same-gender loving couples,” Procter-Murphy said.
“They are happy to overlook the fact that Jesus himself was silent on the matter but had a lot of things to say about divorce which Christians are happy to turn a blind eye to.
“The Bible was used to justify slavery because there are passages—maybe even more that the ones on homosexuality—to support slavery. The Bible has been used to keep women in subservient roles and that persists today.”
Not all clergy would agree with Procter-Murphy’s assessment.
For nearly 2,000 years, Christian denominations consistently taught that homosexual activity was sinful; acceptance has come only in recent decades following the sexual revolution.
Bill Meiter, lead pastor at Arizona Community Church, a non- denominational, evangelical church in Tempe, offered his appraisal of the United Methodist Church General Conference’s decision to continue its ban on gay clergy and same-sex weddings.
Citing passages from Romans and Timothy, he applauded the body’s vote as “courageous.”
“The United Methodist Church made a courageous stand for biblical truth with their historic vote yesterday,” Meiter said in an email to Wrangler News.
“There is absolutely no doubt as to the Scripture’s teaching on this matter. Any attempt to try to make the Bible say anything other is completely wrong and totally misleading. God’s Word might be offensive to some on this matter but it is no way unclear. Those who offer an alternative narrative might have cultural support, but they lack what they truly need—biblical support.”
It’s not the first time the local faith community has been divided by views concerning homosexuality. In recent years, most mainline Protestant denominations—Presbyterian, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran—have approved and performed same-sex wedding ceremonies. Some of them have lost congregations who disagreed with the policy.
Living Faith Anglican Church in Tempe, for example, was established in 2005 after about 80 percent of parishioners at St. James Episcopal Church in Tempe left in protest over the ordination of an openly gay man by the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire.
The Rev. Peter Smith, who now leads Living Faith, provided a statement to Wrangler News regarding the UMC General Conference decision. The statement reads in part:
“Love is not the same as approval and disapproval is not the same as hate. Jesus loved all those he encountered, but he never called ‘good’ that which was sinful or evil. Instead, we see Jesus loving people and at the same time calling them to turn away from the things which draw them away from the love of God, which is the ultimate purpose for which we were created. It is possible and indeed necessary for the Church to affirm the dignity of every human being (whoever they may be, LGBTQ or otherwise) and to genuinely love them without affirming their specific moral choices (or perceived identities) which are contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture.
“Christ loves all of us equally, and invites all of us to repent of sin, turn to him for forgiveness, and enter into a new way of living.”
Smith concurred with Procter-Murphy on one point: It’s about people, not issues.
“I believe it is significant that the UMC upheld the historic, orthodox Christian teaching on homosexual relations and same-sex marriage,” Smith wrote. “However, we need to recognize that these debates are about more than just ‘issues,’ they are about people—people who are loved by God, and should be loved by us. When theological debates within the Church generate hatred for and/or fear of human beings who are made in God’s image, that is a loss not a victory. Christians are called to pursue both truth and love; never one without the other. It is my hope that this is how the UMC will be moving forward.”