A group of Nebraska teens has publicly declined to participate in an important ritual of the United Methodist Church ― stating that they are upset about their denomination’s non-affirming attitude towards queer Christians.
The eight teenagers from Omaha’s First United Methodist Church spent one year preparing for confirmation, a service during which young members typically reaffirm their Christian faith and take a vow of membership in the UMC, America’s third-largest religious group.
But when Confirmation Sunday arrived this week, the junior high school students stood up and announced that they were not going to join the UMC at this time ― protesting that its policies towards LGBTQ members are “immoral.”
The teens read out a joint letter explaining their stance during the service, Religion News Service first reported.
“We are disappointed about the direction the United Methodist denomination is heading,” the teens wrote in the letter, which was published on First United Methodist’s Facebook page.
The teens were referring to a decision made by a special session of the UMC’s General Conference in February. About 53% of delegates to the conference voted in favor of what members call the “Traditional Plan,” which reinforces church doctrine prohibiting same-sex marriage and the ordination of queer clergy. The plan also strengthens penalties for clergy who perform same-sex weddings, according to RNS.
Last week, the UMC’s top court upheld most of the Traditional Plan. It is expected to go into effect in January 2020.
The General Conference’s vote for the “Traditional Plan” has prompted discussions about a schism, with some LGBTQ-affirming congregations contemplating leaving and forming a more progressive splinter group.
Omaha’s First United Methodist Church has a long history of progressive activism around LGBTQ issues. In 1997, former pastor Rev. Jimmy Creech performed a commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple. In 1999, Creech was defrocked for officiating the wedding ceremony of two men. The next year, First United Methodist became a Reconciling Ministry Congregation, part of a network of UMC churches committed to the full inclusion of LGBTQ members.
Laura Young, RMN’s south central regional organizer and a cis/straight ally, told HuffPost that she’s proud of the teens.
“They’re engaged, informed, and making hard choices,” Young said. “They said yes to a calling. Some would say they followed a prompting of the Holy Spirit. We adults could learn from them.”
In the UMC, candidates for confirmation are called “Confirmands.” They usually take a yearlong course that covers Christian doctrine, theology, Methodist Church history and other topics. At the end of the year, the Confirmands decide whether to become full voting members of their local congregation.
Candice Nielsen, a spokesperson for First United Methodist of Omaha, told HuffPost that the eight teens started questioning whether to join the UMC after hearing that the Traditional Plan had passed at the General Conference. This resulted in many conversations between the students, church leaders and their parents, she added. Eventually, all eight of the Confirmands agreed not to join this year. Two Confirmands worked directly on the bulk of the letter to the congregation, which Nielsen claimed was written with minimal input from adults.
The teens’ letter suggests that they may become officially confirmed at a later date, depending on how their congregation responds to the Traditional Plan.
First United Methodist is currently considering three options for the future, Nielsen said: resisting from within the UMC, affiliating with a progressive denomination like the United Church of Christ, or becoming an independent, non-denominational congregation.
Until First United Methodist determines its future, the teens promised to continue to stand up against the broader denomination’s “unjust actions.”
“We are not standing just for ourselves, we are standing for every single member of the LGBTQ+ community who is hurting right now,” the teens wrote in their letter. “Because we were raised in this church, we believe that if we all stand together as a whole, we can make a difference.”
Nielsen said that the congregation and church staff have been “humbled” by the teens’ actions.
“We support our youth fully, and want to give them the respect and space to lead us towards full inclusion for All God’s Beloved Children,” she said.
J.J. Warren is a gay, lifelong United Methodist and aspiring pastor who delivered a passionate speech in defense of queer Christians’ humanity during February’s General Conference. He said he is still a certified candidate for ministry within his denomination and plans to attend a United Methodist seminary next year.
Warren said that First United Methodist’s confirmation class has his “full support and love.” He pointed out that one of the vows UMC Confirmands usually take is to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression” ― which is exactly what he believes these young people are doing.
“What their action tell the world is that we young people are not only the Church of tomorrow, we are the Church of today,” Warren said. “And we don’t like the way things are—and we will not be complacent with injustice.”