SCARBOROUGH, Maine — In the closing moments of Sunday service, the roughly 40 members of the West Scarborough United Methodist Church closed their hymnals — they had just finished singing one called “Bind Us Together” — and shuffled to the edges of the pews. Facing in, they clasped each others’ hands in a large circle.
None of the congregation recognized the reporter who crept in toward the end of Sunday’s service and sat quietly in the last row of pews. But they reached out for my hands anyway, a necessary bridge to close the circle for final prayers.
“We are an open and inclusive church here, and I am proud to say it,” Karen Poore, a longtime member of United Methodist Church in Scarborough, said after the service.
The openness and inclusion Poore referred to was not about making strangers feel welcome at service. But Sunday’s service was the first since news broke that the United Methodist Church plans to formally split into more than one denomination over “fundamental differences,” specifically whether to allow same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.
For some members of the congregation, the issue had been a long time coming. Members of the church have been discussing the issue in small, informal groups after service for months. They work locally, discussing ways to signal to the public that they are a so-called open and affirming church — one that allows people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in membership and ministry — with signs, flags and on the church’s website.
“That’s something we’re working on, how to make it more apparent,” said Pat Marquis, 75, a co-lay leader at West Scarborough’s United Methodist Church.
Marquis said there have been times when new people would come and leave when they found out it was an open and affirming church. It’s too bad, she said, but Marquis said there is no question which way the majority of the church’s community feels about the issue.
That may not be true for other Methodist churches in Maine. One member of Scarborough’s congregation, a 91-year-old who had been a church member for 37 years, said she expected many other Maine churches to splinter, observing an “incompatibility” phrase in church law and doctrine prohibiting the ordainment of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage.
A vote to split is expected at the United Methodist Church’s general conference in May. It is expected to pass, after which the roughly 12 million Methodists around the world would decide whether to stay with the United Methodist Church or split off into a “traditionalist Methodist” branch that would continue to ban same-sex marriage and the ordainment of LGBTQ clergy.
Early signs of the national split can be traced to Maine. The state is part of the New England Conference, a governing body that in 2016 to approved a resolution titled “Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of The United Methodist Church,” pledging that the conference “will not conform or comply with provisions of the (Book of) Discipline which discriminate against LGBTQIA persons.”
Ophelia Hu Kinney is a worship coordinator with HopeGateWay, an open and affirming church in Portland that observes a United Methodist tradition. HopeGateWay is one of 10 congregations in the New England Annual Conference that is “discerning its relationship” to the United Methodist Church, a term which refers to the group’s decision to evaluate what they want in any future iteration of Methodist or other denominational affiliation regardless of the outcome of the General Conference vote in May.
Hu Kinney said that this group has been “leading the charge on being what I consider ‘faithful’ United Methodists, or ‘faithful’ Christians, in declaring openness and inclusion to all of God’s people.”
A split in the Methodist church would be significant, but Hu Kinney sees it as another in a long history of surviving division within the faith.
“Mainers and Maine churches in my experience have an ethos that says we will get through this,” she said.