Methodists’ LGBTQ decision may lead university to break affiliation


Jesse Kucewicz

Recent decisions by the denomination might lead Baldwin Wallace University to sever it’s 174-year-old affiliation with the United Methodist Church.

In the wake recent decisions made by the United Methodist Church, Baldwin Wallace is reconsidering what it means to be a Methodist-affiliated university.
In a special conference late last month, the United Methodist Church voted by a slim margin to reaffirm their existing language regarding homosexuality. The “traditional plan,” which passed 53 to 47 percent, strengthens their ban on LGBT clergy and marriages and increases penalties for those who violate that policy.
For Baldwin Wallace, who has been Methodist-affiliated since the school’s founding in 1845, this decision puts tradition and modern values at odds with one another. As a school that supports its LGBT students, faculty, and staff, President Robert Helmer said BW is considering disaffiliating with the Methodist church.
“It’s a sad, challenging situation,” he said. “You hate to break a relationship that’s been 174 years and has benefited both sides, but it could be time for us to become an independent university.”
The question of how the church’s decision would affect schools like BW is still uncertain, said Helmer. While the United Methodist ruling bars LGBT individuals from becoming clergy, it is unclear as to whether that same policy would mean they would also be excluded from leadership roles at Methodist-affiliated universities.
Despite this uncertainty, BW is not alone in considering the implications of this decision for Methodist universities. Helmer said the four other Methodist schools in Ohio — Mount Union, Ohio Northern, Ohio Wesleyan, and Otterbein universities — are all reconsidering their relationship with the United Methodist Church over this issue. All five university presidents signed a joint statement expressing their disappointment in the church’s decision and reaffirming their commitment to their LGBT students, faculty, and staff.

Limited Impact
While Baldwin Wallace has been affiliated with the church since its inception, BW’s relationship with the United Methodist Church today is very different than it was in 1845.
Though some scholarships are available to Methodist students, BW today receives “no significant financial support” from the United Methodist Church, said Helmer. The church also does not own any part of BW’s campus. Every ten years, the school undergoes a review by the church, and ten percent of the school’s Board of Trustees must be Methodist.
Even the college chapel, which may be the most visible component of the affiliation, does not provide an active connection to the Methodist denomination. While BW maintains a chapel and a chaplain, it has been decades since students were required to attend chapel services, said Helmer. Current worship services that are offered on Thursdays are not Methodist-specific: Dr. John Gordon, university chaplain and associate professor of religion, provides a non-denominational worship service that is “reasonably familiar to any student that has attended a mainline Protestant denomination worship service.”
Though he is ordained as a United Methodist minister, Gordon said this has been a longstanding effort to make the campus religious services more accessible to all members of the campus community — not just adhering to a particular denomination.
“Worship that we’re providing is ecumenical, and that’s deliberate, because again, this Thursday service attracts students, faculty, and staff, and the last thing in the world I would want to do would be to create a service that others might feel excluded from,” said Gordon.
These ecumenical services are not only inclusive, but also practical: part of the reason the campus chapel does not provide Methodist-specific services is that BW simply doesn’t have that many students who identify as Methodist. According to the Fall 2018 BW census, 1814 of the 3090 undergraduates identified with a denomination. Of those 1814 students, only 7.8 percent identified as Methodist. Slightly more than 47 percent identified with another Protestant denomination, and 35.1 percent identified as Catholic.

Founding Values
Today, Helmer said BW’s Methodist heritage is felt most strongly in the school’s founding values of social justice and inclusion. For BW, he said, these values mean accepting and supporting the school’s LGBT community — even if that requires the school is in conflict with the denomination.
The recent ruling is not the first time BW has found itself at odds with the church. When same-sex marriage was legalized in the country, BW chose to allow same-sex unions in the school chapel despite the United Methodist Church’s language against it. BW was also among the first schools in Ohio to acknowledge the same-sex partners of faculty and staff members for health benefits, said Gordon. The rationale then was markedly similar to the rationale now, he said.
“We made that move because the [BW] president at the time understood that that was in keeping with our Methodist history of inclusivity and acceptance,” said Gordon.

Moving Forward
BW is not alone in feeling that the church’s decision is at odds with its own values: 47 percent of the delegates at the United Methodist conference voted against the “traditional plan” that strengthened the anti-LGBT language, and nearly 60 percent of American Methodists approve of gay clergy and same-sex marriages in the Methodist church.
The conference’s decision is not yet final — it is pending approval by the church’s judicial council — and no one is exactly sure what the outcome will be, said Gordon. Though there has been talk of the denomination splitting over this issue, he said there is no “formal plan” of the sort yet.
“The bottom line is while we may have some guesses as what we think is going to happen in these official denominational-wide decisions, we don’t know officially,” said Gordon. “And so until we do know officially, all we can do is watch and wait and then decide what makes the most sense for us as a university.”
If the university were to end its affiliation with the Methodist church, Helmer said it is not clear how noticeable it would be to day-to-day campus life.
“If we were to disaffiliate, I don’t think anything would change on our campus,” said Helmer. “We would continue to welcome all people. We would continue to promote diversity. We would continue to have offerings of a spiritual life — all different kinds — just like we do today.”
The Board of Trustees will discuss the Methodist affiliation at their meeting at the end April, said Helmer, where they may decide to disaffiliate or to wait to see what the denomination decides.
Regardless of the church’s decision — or if BW decides to disaffiliate or remain with the church — the school will remain true to its values, Helmer said.
“The one thing I’m sure of is who BW is,” he said, “that we are a university that welcomes all people and wants to give all opportunities to all people.”