Give Light ~ United Methodists face changes ~

Frances Stebbins
{This is a memory from the six decades the author has spent writing about faith communities in daily, weekly and monthly news publications covering the western third of Virginia.}


The issue of acceptance of gay or transgendered persons as ordained ministers has increasingly affected American denominations over the past 20 years. Now the United Methodist Church, which next to the Baptist, attracts the largest number of members in these parts, is facing a planned split over the issue.

My word “planned” is significant. Churches often split over the way theology is interpreted or, more likely, over changes in culture such as sexual orientation. A group of members get together, expresses their displeasure with the way something is going and rally around a minister. They find a meeting place, circulate news of the break and are in business.

Two that come to mind are Church of the Holy Spirit and Shenandoah Baptist, both of which date from more than 40 years ago.

For many years, the “discipline” or rules of the United Methodist denomination has contained a statement that forbids a gay/transgendered person from serving as a minister.

This rule became a local issue when the Rev. Joe Cobb, an ordained United Methodist and married to a woman, was assigned to a Roanoke congregation. He went public on his dilemma, the couple divorced, Cobb left the Methodists and became pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church which had been established in Southeast Roanoke and for several years had a female pastor.

A few years later, Cobb gave up that pastorate but remained an activist for gay acceptance. He now serves as vice-mayor of the City of Roanoke.

Related to the United Methodist vote on the national level, which is scheduled to come before the conference May 5-15, the Rev. Douglas Paysour of Windsor Hills United Methodist in Southwest Roanoke pointed out to his congregation that the possibility of a formal division is not inevitable. It is only one of several ways of trying to reconcile the issue which church-watchers have recognized as being around for many years. If a formal division should come about, one group would hold to the present rule which clearly forbids an ordained United Methodist from living in an openly gay lifestyle or performing a marriage for two people of the same sex. The other group, which some pastors locally seemingly support, would ease the restrictions .

Looking through my United Methodist files for the past several decades, I discovered a number of memorable happenings besides the continuing struggle over gay ordination.

  • “The Virginia Methodist Advocate,” a news magazine issued from Richmond for members in parishes throughout all of the Commonwealth, except the area west of the New River, was filled with columns , people and events . I knew several of its editors. Like other print publications, it’s been reduced in recent years and moved to online. Still, it came as a shock to learn of its disappearance in print at the beginning of this year
  • The church Joe Cobb once served, Belmont United Methodist near the former East End railroad shops, is long gone. Its last pastor, the Rev. Sam McPhail, was creative and energetic and realized the potential for growth in the developing Smith Mountain Lake retirement community a few miles to the southeast. In 1999, a clipping reveals, he brought to the area the contemporary Lutheran composer, Marty Haugen, for a conference on updated liturgical music, some of which is now sung from the revised hymnals issued late in the last century by most major denominations.
  • The number of openly gay clergy is increasing. I know of the Rev. Alex Richardson, pastor of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Roanoke, as well as Cobb. Recently, the female rabbi of historic Beth Israel Synagogue, Jama Purser, revealed at a talk at my Salem church that she is gay. It wasn’t an issue with Purser; she was speaking on some Jewish distinctives such as dietary practices and holy days, but in a congregation defined as “conservative,” being both female and openly gay represents a major change.
  • Finally, mention of the death of the Rev. Dr. R. Kern Eutsler at the age of 100 brought back memories of the charming and capable man who served South Roanoke Methodist Church from 1960-1965. Eutsler, who eventually became a bishop in the Holston Conference covering Southwest Virginia, was a leader in the Roanoke Ministers Conference in the troubled days of church folk adjusting to racial integration, anti-war protests, the Lyndon Johnson “war on poverty” and acceptance of faith minorities. In his day “United” hadn’t been added to the name, for First Evangelical United Brethren Church still stood near Wasena Bridge. It would not lose its German Methodist identity for another five years.

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