After vote to repeal LGBTQ bans, many gay Methodists are now fully out

On the first Sunday after the conclusion of the denomination’s General Conference, many queer United Methodists celebrated their release from the tight and narrow spaces that had confined them.

The Rev. Charles Daly gives Communion bread to a congregant at Sunday services at Epworth United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, on May 5, 2024. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Durham, N.C. (RNS) — On the same day that United Methodist delegates voted to repeal their denomination’s condemnation of homosexuality from its rulebook, the Rev. Charles Daly drove a big hulking church bus to the Charlotte Convention Center with a handful of church members in tow.

Maneuvering the bus into a parking lot that Thursday was tricky. The bus was too tall to clear the overhang at the entrance to one lot, and he had to carefully back out, allow his passengers to step off, and search for another lot.

The end run appeared in his Sunday (May 5) sermon at Epworth United Methodist Church, a suburban congregation in Durham, as a metaphor for his denomination’s predicament.

“After an unbelievable amount of moving traffic and backing and forthing, finally, the General Conference of the United Methodist church was pulling around and driving out of a place that had been stuck for 52 years,” he told his congregation. “The big bus of the denomination is now free from the alley that it backed itself into.”

In Charlotte, members of Epworth United Methodist watched history being made when their denomination repealed a declaration that said the practice of homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” A day earlier it also dropped a ban on the ordination of gay clergy.

The Rev. Charles Daly gives the benediction at Sunday services at Epworth United Methodist Church in Durham on May 5, 2024. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

But for Daly, a 42-year-old gay man, the actions of his denomination carried personal symbolism, too. As the first same-sex married minister in the North Carolina Conference or region, he was freed of the heavy burden of having to negotiate his identity in a denomination that until last week officially sanctioned and censured people like him.

There are an estimated 324 clergy, including candidates for ordination, in the U.S. -based United Methodist Church who identify as LGBTQ+. Of those, about 160 are in same-sex marriages, according to the Reconciling Ministries Network, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ people.

These gay clergy were allowed in stealthily, as attitudes toward LGBTQ+ clergy candidates began to change among some church leaders.

“A lot of people who I worked with did their very best not to treat me as a special case,” said Daly. “But it felt like an elephant in the room sometimes.”

On the first Sunday after the conclusion of the denomination’s General Conference, many United Methodists celebrated their release from those tight and narrow spaces that had confined so many queer members and clergy.

Others settled into the realization that despite the dramatic votes to expunge all punitive measures against LGBTQ+ people, not all United Methodists were happy.

Over the past five years, some 7,600 more traditional U.S. churches, or about 25% of all U.S. congregations, voted to leave the denomination, fearing the church was about to lift the LGBTQ+ bans.

Some have remained in the pews.

“Just because you remove language from the Book of Discipline doesn’t mean that your work is over,” said the Rev. James Howell, pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, one of the state’s largest United Methodist churches. “There’s a huge amount of work to do.”

Howell said he was approached by two or three people on Sunday who he described as “pretty grim” about the actions of delegates to the General Conference.

Many in his congregation, Howell said, would be shocked to learn that the church has had at least one gay minister during every decade, going back to the 1950s, if not earlier.

Daly knows this reality well.

The Rev. Charles Daly speaks to a congregant at Epworth United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, after services on Sunday May 5, 2024. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

He grew up in a small North Carolina town knowing he was gay, but for most of his life he did not discuss his sexuality with his family or his church.

At 30, he enrolled and was admitted to Union Theological Seminary in New York. After graduating, the North Carolina Conference, which spans the eastern half of the state, offered him the position of licensed local pastor — a position that does not require ordination — of two small churches on the state’s coast.

The congregations he served were conservative, and he did not tell their members about his sexuality. Though he had good relations with church members, he lived a mostly closeted life.

In 2020, he asked for a move to Epworth United Methodist Church in Durham, which six years earlier had become a “reconciling congregation,” meaning that it joined a network of Methodist churches that include people regardless of all sexual orientations. It was an associate pastor role, meaning he would not be the senior pastor, but he figured he could at least work in a more welcoming environment.

He was granted the move and then invited his partner, Luke Bauman, whom he had met at seminary, to move in with him.

Two years later, he and Bauman went to the Durham courthouse and married. They later threw a reception at a church he did not name. He was upfront with the church board interviewing him for ordination and told them he had married.

Last year, he was formally ordained.

“We had a holistic review, and then the board finally decided to recommend him,” said Sangwoo Kim, who chairs the Board of Ordained Ministry for the North Carolina Conference.

Daly said he was elated by the actions of the delegates at the General Conference. For the first time in nearly a decade, his sexuality is no longer an impediment to his ministry.

Recently, the bishop and cabinet of the North Carolina Conference appointed Daly as senior minister to Elizabeth Street United Methodist, the church’s first reconciling congregation, a post he will take up in July.

Several of his congregants are sorry to see him go but thrilled for the recognition he’s finally receiving.

“It’s just a joyous situation,” said Becky Felton, 80, a member of the church who said she gained so much respect for Daly after he told the church that he had married his partner before he was formally ordained. “It’s so wonderful to see the church that I love embracing the people I love.”

By Yonat Shimron, Religion News Service