Newton United Methodist Church celebrates end to anti-gay doctrines

PHOTO: The United Methodist Church has ended longstanding bans on gay clergy and same-sex marriage. Photo by Genevieve Morrison

In May, when Sunmnin Cho, rector of Newton United Methodist Church (NUMC), heard that the global Methodist church had lifted anti-gay doctrine from its rule book, he was close to tears.

“I was in my house with my wife, and we almost cried with joy,” Cho said.

But this groundbreaking progression for the global church didn’t change much for Cho and his parishioners. It only affirmed what they already practiced.

“It’s sort of formalizing our stance as a church that we are welcoming,” said Michael Cuccurullo,
NUMC board member and parishioner.

The rules in the United Methodist Book of Disciple that banned same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay people had been around for 52 years. Cho and his New England colleagues had been ignoring them for eight.

In 2016, the Methodist New England Conference passed an action of non-conformity with the global Conference, saying that they would no longer defrock pastors who performed gay marriage, or who were gay themselves.

Cho said that since then, he’s felt that he has the freedom to accommodate gay people freely.

“I was very secure that I can do and I can welcome gay marriage, and I can let other people use this as a venue for their marriage,” Cho said.

But Cho had been open about his viewpoint since day one. He said that in his interviews for the position, he told the board of trustees that was accepting of gay people.

“I said that I have this progressive idea about welcoming all the gays and lesbian thing,” Cho said. “If there’s a problem, I just want to lay out there.”

Cuccurullo agreed that the Newton church has long been progressive. He said that since they often take interns from Boston University’s school of theology, NUMC has a newer perspective on social issues than some other parishes.

Many parishioners have memories of bypassing the rules in support of LGBTQ couples. One Newton parishioner, Lynn Havens, said she had helped put on a then-illegal, same-sex wedding at a Methodist church in New York in 2012.

Havens said her pastor was personally accepting of the gay couple, but couldn’t officiate the marriage because he risked losing his ordainment.

“Our pastor really felt he could not perform this marriage because he would lose everything,” Havens said.

So a fellow parishioner went through an online certification to be an officiant, and the congregation worked together to host the wedding in their church while their pastor was out of town, according to Havens.

“We just waited for him to go on vacation,” Havens said. ”We thought it was a big deal. And we were happy.”

In the years before the vote this May, the United Methodist church had been becoming more
progressive. Thousands of conservative congregations split off in anticipation of this very rule

“Those disagreeing votes, they already disaffiliated, so it was more like the leftover churches that would agree to LGBTQ persons,” Cho said.

Still, Cho said that the passage of the rule change came as a shock.

“We thought that this general conference would be like a big struggle and debate and fight, but it was just in the consent calendar,” Cho said. “Nobody pulled it down. It was just smooth. It jus passed, and everybody was surprised.”

Since the General Conference only lifted the anti-gay language from the rule book and didn’t add a new rule to legalize gay marriage, the United Methodist Church’s stance is neutral on paper.

Individual churches now have the choice to reject or embrace gay couples, but there’s no question of what Cho plans to do.

Cho says he will confirm his parish as openly accepting by joining Reconciling Ministries, an online directory of explicitly LGBTQ-friendly churches.

“If any gay or lesbian person moved to this area, saying ‘We’re looking for a church that is welcoming,’” Cho said. “They can check Reconciling Ministries website and see, ‘Oh, Newton UMC is Reconciling.”

Cuccurullo said he hopes the change in rules will encourage more people to join his church.

“We are removing more and more roadblocks from the Book of Discipline, so that no one should have any reason not to walk through our front door and join our congregation,” Cuccurullo said.

Editor’s note: Newton Beacon Board member Rhanna Kidwell is also board member at the United Methodist Church in Newton.