“You are God’s beloved, and in you, God is well pleased.”

Jason Butler’s words echoed through the quaint downtown Raleigh chapel, reverberating off its walls. A warm glow radiated through the church’s stained-glass windows. Butler, a Virginia native earning his doctorate at Duke Divinity, is the pastor of the Open Table United Methodist Church on Bloodworth Street, which counts about two hundred members in its congregation. About a hundred were in attendance this Sunday morning in March.

Butler paced the pulpit, nestled between two big-screen televisions perched on the walls. He wore jeans and sneakers. His gray vest was the only nod to traditional clergy style. His message, too, was untraditional, at least to those raised in the socially conservative version of the faith pervasive in the South. He railed against hate in the media and urged his congregants to tune out negative voices. 

“You are God’s beloved, and in you, God is well pleased,” he repeated, his voice wavering. He paused, looked over the crowd, then said it again. And again.

“You are God’s beloved, and in you, God is well pleased.”

This is a familiar refrain to most Christians—a tweak of Matthew 3:17, in which God boasts of Jesus, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” 

But for Kim Costello, it took on a deeper resonance.

Like many of Open Table’s worshippers that morning, Costello identifies as LGBTQ. Her wife, Michelle Coleman, was seated beside her. Costello slid her arm around Coleman’s shoulders. 

“Usually you get stares,” Costello said later. “I didn’t feel those eyes today.”

It was their first time at Open Table. They’d recently left their old church, another local Methodist congregation. They weren’t the only ones here who’d done so. Over the past few weeks, Butler had seen dozens of new faces, many there for the same reason. Their previous churches were aligned with the global denomination. And the global denomination had just told them they were no longer wanted.

On February 26, the United Methodist Church, the second-largest Protestant (and largest mainline) denomination in the U.S., voted to maintain and strengthen its ban on same-sex marriage and forbid members of the LGBTQ community from serving as clergy. By the narrowest of margins—fifty-four votes out of eight hundred delegates voting on behalf of nine million adherents—conservative delegates to the UMC’s national conference in St. Louis rejected an initiative to allow individual churches to decide whether to wed same-sex couples or be led by LGBTQ parishioners. The vote threatens to fracture a denomination that traces its history back to the Wesleyan revival of eighteenth-century England.

Liz Roberts, the pastor of Fairmount United Methodist Church in Raleigh, says she wept as she watched the vote from the convention center’s cheap seats. Around her, fellow Methodists rose and chanted “No” as the votes were counted; the traditionalists sang in victory while reformers stormed the stage and sang out in protest.

“I’ve never seen an image of a broken church,” Roberts says. “There it was.”

The next day, John Suddath, an LGBTQ member of Roberts’s congregation, handed her a letter rescinding his longtime membership at Fairmount. 

“At 83,” he wrote, “I now believe that reconciliation with my church is not possible and that the established order will continue for the foreseeable future. I don’t want to hear another endless debate of the ‘issue.’ I am not an issue; I am a person. If the church cannot accept me just as I am, then it has no place for me.”

But some local Methodists aren’t giving up the fight for LGBTQ equality within their church. Roberts planted hundreds of rainbow flags on her church’s grounds, where they stood until congregants took them. She also planned to paint a pulpit in rainbow colors and leave it on the church steps, a sign to those who feel rejected by the mother church that they are welcome in her congregation. 

Butler wants to take this local resistance beyond symbolic gestures. Last week, he began circulating a petition protesting the denomination’s decision and already has more than five hundred signatures. He says he’ll deliver it to North Carolina’s Bishop Hope Ward at the end of the month, leading hundreds of demonstrators to the Conference Headquarters in Garner.

Ward says she stands with Butler but is powerless to act. The so-called traditional plan approved by the convention’s delegates is now in the hands of the denomination’s judicial branch, which is expected to either uphold or reject it in April. She believes too much focus has been made on “one dimension of human existence”—sexuality—“to the neglect of other areas of our lives.”

“This hyper-focus is unhealthy,” Ward says. “What [Butler] desires is in harmony with what I desire for our church. He is embodying the best of spiritual traditions, which is to listen to God’s call upon our lives and to follow it, to love expansively, and to serve without reserve.”

This fight isn’t new to Butler, though it’s not the stance he imagined himself taking as a young pastor in Milwaukee in 2006. He’d grown up evangelical, in an environment that taught that homosexuality was a choice—and a sin. But after he grew close to a same-sex couple in his neighborhood, his views changed, he says. God’s word, he came to believe, was a message of love, not condemnation.

He also saw a schism emerging in the Methodist movement over gay rights—and experienced it firsthand. His evolving views on LGBTQ rights cost him his frock in the Wesleyan Church 2015, after nearly a decade of service. But he didn’t lose his faith. In 2016, he moved to Raleigh to for a fresh start; he launched Open Table in 2018 as a progressive, LGBTQ-affirming church and became licensed as a local Methodist pastor. 

In a year, Open Table’s membership quadrupled from its original fifty. About a fifth of them identify as queer. To these congregants, the church is more than an open door. It’s also a place where LGTBQ members have their own activity group and are encouraged to participate in every aspect of worship, from being ushers to leading prayer to giving communion. 

The global conference’s recent decision, however, could present Butler with a choice: Stop all that—and no longer marry same-sex couples—by next year, or risk losing his ordination. He hopes it won’t come to that; he’s convinced the denomination will figure out something less draconian. But Ward says it’s possible that won’t happen—that the anti-LGBTQ decision delegates made in February will remain church policy. 

If so, Butler says, his mind is made up. He’d rather lose his frock again than give in, he says. 

“This stance is toxic,” he says.  “Our theology is causing families to break apart and kids to kill themselves. Good theology always brings peace—shalom—flourishing in someone’s life.”

Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by email at ltauss@indyweek.com, by phone at 919-832-8774, or on Twitter @leightauss.