Park United Methodist Church ponders future

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
The Rev. Joel Hubbard of Park United Methodist Church. The proposed division of the United Methodist Church may affect his church.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — As the United Methodist Church considers a proposal to split into separate entities, the Rev. Joel Hubbard of Park United Methodist Church on Broad Street may soon have a difficult decision to make.

In a statement about the proposal released by the UMC’s Council of Bishops office and shared by Hubbard, the church said that “the action comes amid heightened tensions in the church over conflicting views related to human sexuality,” after a special meeting last year failed
to resolve differences among church members.

According to the letter, a protocol has been created for “restructuring the United Methodist Church by separation as the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the church to remain true to its theological understanding, while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity and respect of every person.”

Hubbard said representatives from throughout the United Methodist world will be meeting May 5 to May 15 in Minneapolis to vote on the proposed separation.

In his office, he said the UMC has been struggling for decades to embrace the breadth of theological and biblical understanding.
“With what I think we’re struggling with in our own country, there’s a parallel experience in the UMC,” he said. “The breaking point for the church primarily relates to the ordaining of LGBTQ clergy and the recognition of LGBTQ marital status.”

A unique aspect of the Methodist movement in Christianity, said Hubbard, is that the global laity and clergy have an equal voice and vote. But those voices and votes aren’t equally progressive, so the UMC has experienced internal tensions as voters seek to move the church in opposite directions.

At last year’s UMC conference in St. Louis, Mo., 53 percent of church officials and lay members from around the world voted to strengthen the church’s ban on gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex marriage.

During a recent Sunday mass, Hubbard drew attention to news reports and told his congregants that it was 16 individuals who put together the proposal for the split.

“Despite what has been published, the thoughts of these individuals represent just one approach, which may or may not gain attention at the gathering in May,” he said.

There were six or seven proposals, said Hubbard, and not all involve a split.
But whichever proposal is accepted in Minneapolis, it will have a ripple effect throughout all Methodist churches.

“If there’s a vote for change, it will affect us,” Hubbard said of Park United. “I don’t know if the change will be great or small. We’ll be called upon to make a choice or not make a choice. If the conference decides to split, the local church will have to decide where it will go, to which designated faction.”

Losing or gaining people is normal for a congregation, but Hubbard said that whenever a group explicitly defines its identity, it will attract some people and repel others.

But, he said, the leaders and congregants of Park United decided several years ago that the church would be a welcoming community.
“God created in a marvelous and wondrous diversity,” said Hubbard. “Sexual identity and orientation are part of that creation. Park United reflects in every way God’s diversity. We have persons from 23 countries who identify with conservatives, moderates and progressives. We are striving as a family.”

Hubbard, who is in his ninth year at the church, acknowledged that the United Methodist Church’s division would be as painful as a familial divorce.

“I grieve the pain that real people are experiencing and have been for decades,” he said. “We can respect and honor differences in biblical understanding, but we would not oppress others of God’s children who did not hold our views. My commitment is redoubled to find a just, equitable and compassionate response, both personally and professionally.”

He said there is an ancient expression in Christianity that applies to all times and especially now:
In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.