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'United or Methodist?': East Tennessee Methodist churches hold firm in not ordaining gay clergy, facing possible denominational split in August

Despite the United Methodist Church’s name, the worldwide denomination of over 12 million people is divided on policies regarding sexuality.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Every Sunday, Seth O’ Kegley-Gibson leads worship services at First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge.

“First Church welcomes and embraces Jesus's message that God loves and accepts every person,” said O’ Kegley-Gibson. “Our welcome quite literally knows no boundaries, and we invite all people to participate in the life in the ministry.”

The church hired O’ Kegley-Gibson in 2016 providing him a path to pursue his calling as a pastor, but the Holsten Conference of the United Methodist Church following the official rules of the general conference prohibits him from ordination since he is married to another man.

“Just like any other organization or denominational body we have different interpretations of different things,” O’ Kegley-Gibson said.

The United Methodist denomination does not allow anyone in the LGBTQ+ community to become clergy and prohibits same-sex weddings on church properties.

O’ Kegley-Gibson met his husband Jared at First Church in Oak Ridge, but according to United Methodist policy, the two had to go elsewhere for their wedding.

“We got married at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Knoxville,” O’ Kegley-Gibson said. “I've got a good clergy friend of mine who's an Episcopal priest and he did the service there.”

The United Methodist Church’s stance on same-sex marriage and sexuality became a point of contention in the 1970s and has gained a considerable amount of support over the last 50 years, leading church leaders to believe a Methodist split is looming.

“Over 90% of our folks, when we've talked to them and surveyed them, want to find a way to stay together,” Wil Cantrel said, a pastor at Concord United Methodist in Farragut.

Cantrel added his church accepts and loves members of the LGBTQ+ community, some of which play an active role in his church, similar to O’ Kegley-Gibson In Oak Ridge.

“There are differing opinions within our church about it, but we do follow the policy,” Cantrel said. “We have a very accepting community where folks are very close-knit and care for one another.”

Some regional conferences have gone against the general conference and ordained pastors who are openly gay such as the Mountain Sky Conference in Colorado.

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That is where O’ Kegley-Gibson did his seminary school and was commissioned as a provisional elder by Karen Oliveto, the first Methodist lesbian bishop.

The Mountain Sky Conference defied official church legislation when appointing Oliveto, something the Holsten Conference in East Tennessee does not intend to budge on for now.

“I think the Holsten Conference doesn't quite see this area the same way I do,” O’ Kegley-Gibson added. “It's unfortunate that I may have to go elsewhere to serve and live out my call by God.”

According to Cantrel, there have been gay clergy members ordained in the Holsten Conference before, but their sexual orientation was unknown.

“I think within East Tennessee there will be an expression of Methodism that allows for gay Methodist clergy, and there will probably also be an expression of Methodism that does not allow,” Cantrel added.

Cantrel represented the Holsten Conference at the general conference in 2012 and 2016 when debates on sexuality reached a boiling point.

The pastor’s book “Unafraid and Unashamed” discusses the future of the United Methodist Church following the contentious meetings.

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“With progressive groups openly violating our methods for church organization and conservative groups calling for separation, United Methodists now must confront a fateful question,” Cantrel read from his book. “Is the United Methodist Church, as it is currently constituted, still “United” or “Methodist”.”

O’ Kegley-Gibson said he will continue doing “the Lord’s work” serving his church and community until a denominational split makes an official vote at the United Methodist Church general conference in 2024.

“We're doing ministry, we're helping people that are hurting in a pandemic world right now,” he added. “That's really what we’re keeping our eyes focused on and we just kind of hold our breath and wait for the rest.”

The United Methodist Church’s next general conference was scheduled for August 2022, where there would have been a vote on a split, but COVID-19 postponed the meeting.

About 40% of United Methodists are abroad and some are having issues obtaining visas.

General conference is slated for 2024.

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