Category Archives: Religious News

Gay Games Symposium

Originally known as the Gay Olympics and dating to 1982, the Gay Games are held every four years (just like the Olympiad), and the 9th quadrennial event will run from August 9th through the 16th in the Cleveland/Akron area. The Gay Games will become international when the 2018 games move to Paris.

The events are participatory rather than competitive, and this year’s event is expected to draw 35,000 visitors, including 10,000 participants. The Games are open to all adults – regardless of sexual orientation or athletic ability. With more than 35 sports (from darts to triathlon, bowling to softball) and 2 cultural events (band and chorus), there’s something for everybody.

The United Church of Christ, with headquarters in Cleveland, is one of the sponsors, the first time a religious denomination has taken such a supportive stance. Rev. J. Bennett Guess, an executive in the UCC home office, wrote a guest column in, and he stated,

[W]hen Cleveland, our hometown, was selected to host this summer’s international Gay Games, leaders within the United Church of Christ knew instantly that we had a responsibility, not only as a good corporate citizen, but also as a prominent national religious organization, to do all we could in support, because the lives of LGBT people and their families are at stake. That’s the Christian message of faith, equality and justice that we want to emanate from our visible and vocal endorsement. That’s why we are especially proud that, this August, Cleveland’s own United Church of Christ, headquartered on Prospect Avenue, will become the first religious denomination to be a major corporate sponsor of the Gay Games. The UCC’s Amistad Chapel, built as a shrine to faith-inspired justice advocacy, will host events and extravagantly welcome visitors from across the country and around the globe.

Amistad ChapelI am pleased and honored that the UCC has asked me to moderate a symposium during the games entitled Queer Christians: Celebrating the Past, Shaping the Future. Five local and national leaders of denominations that have made significant progress in becoming LGBT friendly will comprise the blue-ribbon symposium panel. The panelists include:

Rev. Don King is the pastor of Hope Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Cleveland Heights. Hope Lutheran is a Reconciling in Christ Congregation, and Pr. King has been active in the Lutheran LGBT advocacy organization called ReconcilingWorks.

Andy Lang is the executive director of the UCC Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Concerns. The Coalition administers the UCC Open and Affirming Program.

Rev. Tricia Dykers Koenig is the National Organizer for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.

The Very Rev. Tracey Lind is the dean of Trinity Cathedral, the home of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio.

Dr. Kenneth W. Chalker is the pastor of University Circle United Methodist Church, a Reconciling Ministries congregation.

The symposium will be at the Amistad Chapel (700 Prospect Avenue) in downtown Cleveland on Tuesday afternoon, August 12th, commencing at 2:30 pm.



Methodist Queer Clergy

As Christian gays and lesbians have wandered in the wilderness seeking to cross over into the promised land of full inclusion, what has been the goal, the signpost, the visible sign of the land of milk and honey for the queer pilgrim? I suggest two objectives that would mark journey’s end: marriage equality and queer clergy.

Before there was marriage equality, there were ceremonies of blessing, variously called “covenant services,” “commitment services,” “rites of blessing,” and “holy unions.” The United Church of Christ always traveled ahead of sister denominations on the journey toward full inclusion and did not experience the controversies visited upon the other ecumenical denominations. For the Episcopal Church and the ELCA, ceremonies of blessing were never particularly contentious compared to the raging battles over queer clergy that were the subject of ecclesiastical court cases and tense legislative wrangling at national conventions. Similarly, for the Presbyterians, LGBT ordination issues dominated, and the recent adoption of marriage equality was in many ways merely the logical corollary to the revision in ministry policies enacted several years earlier.

For these reasons, my book, Queer Clergy, focuses upon on the struggle for ordination:

For our purposes, full inclusion implies an attitude of welcome without precondition (all means all) and without limit (not just pew but pulpit). The LGBT community is not fully included, not fully welcomed, not fully respected, not fully accepted, not fully treated as children of God unless they can participate in all roles, including the offices of ordained ministry. Many of the pilgrims we will encounter seek to answer their call to ordination, but their quest is not merely self-actualization for they are standard bearers for an entire community. LGBT ordination has been the linchpin, the symbol, the visible sign of inclusivity that sounds” the message [that] goes out from here to the ears of other gays and lesbians who hear the call to ministry, but even more importantly, to the whole host, the entire LGBT community. Here is a church where you are welcome.”

Which brings us to the Methodists. Again, queer clergy issues came first. When gay pastor Gene Leggett protested his defrocking in 1972, the Methodist General Conference responded with the infamous incompatibility clause: “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” A dozen years later after Bishop Melvin Wheatley ordained an out lesbian, the 1984 General Conference responded with “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” The first Methodist ecclesiastical court case over LGBT issues was the 1988 defrocking trial of lesbian Rose Mary Denman.

It was not until 1996 when General Conference added a provision to the Social Principles that brought ceremonies of blessing to the fore. The 1996 General Conference enacted this provision: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” Suddenly, the Methodist progressives were in retreat, and the gatekeepers advanced. Hopes for LGBT ordination had moved beyond the horizon as the ecclesiastical courts enforced the prohibition of covenant ceremonies. Pastor Jimmy Creech, a straight man, was defrocked in the late nineties for performing covenant ceremonies. Similarly, Pastor Greg Dell of Chicago, another straight man, was suspended for a year for blessing the relationship of a pair of his gay parishioners. For the Methodists, LGBT ordination was shoved to the rear burner.

In recent years, Methodist progressives are winning skirmishes over marriage equality. Well over a thousand clergy and bishops have promised to perform marriages when asked and countless are doing so–too many for the gatekeepers to attempt to prosecute. Even picking and choosing their battles has resulted in losses for the conservatives as penalties are minimal or non-existent. As I write this blogpost, news has flashed that Rev. Frank Schaefer has won his appeal, and his clergy credentials have been reinstated. Bishops and conferences are on public record that they will not bring ecclesiastical charges over gay and lesbian marriages.

If momentum over Methodist marriage equality has turned, could ordination issues again resurface?

Funny you should ask.

  • A lesbian ministry candidate recently sought ordination in Texas. Though Mary Ann Barclay’s candidacy was rejected by the Board of Ministry, it is not clear whether her sexual orientation was an issue. It was not discussed during her interview, and the Board’s public statement on May 14, 2014, stated, “The Board thanks Mary Ann for her time and we affirm her as a person of sacred worth, created by God. We have learned from her and we extend our respect for her work in ministry at her local church.” The reasons for rejection were based on the lack of qualifications quite apart from her sexual orientation–at least, that was the official rationale. Earlier Judicial Council actions had allowed the process to continue despite her sexual orientation.
  • At the session of the California-Nevada Annual Conference that convened last week, a resolution was passed indicating that the conference would not discriminate against LGBT candidates for ministry. More specifically, the adopted resolution indicated that “The California-Nevada Annual Conference believes that the mandates of inclusion … take precedence over the discriminatory mandates of exclusion.”
  • In Wisconsin, Rev. Amy DeLong, whose celebrated ecclesiastical trial in 2011 signaled shifting attitudes, has quietly been re-appointed to pastoral ministry. Although she acknowledges herself to be an “out, partnered lesbian” (as noted in her blurb on the back cover of my book), Bishop Hee-Soo Jung considered her eligible for appointment, and she was appointed to be pastor of River Falls UMC of River Falls, Wisconsin. At the just-concluded session of the Wisconsin Annual Conference, there was no public objection to her appointment although the bishop has received a private letter of objection.

The situation in the Methodist church is fluid. As gatekeepers retreat, they raise the specter of schism. Some church leaders are proposing a middle ground, a de jure local option in which individual annual conferences could choose to be fully LGBT inclusive. That may, indeed, be the direction of the church, but the local option already exists, de facto, as evidenced by the actions noted above. There is concern by some progressives that writing a local option into the Book of Discipline would create a segregated system in which some jurisdictions would remain discriminatory. Adoption of a local option policy may not be a stepping stone to full inclusion but an end-all that entrenches Jim Crow-like segregation for LGBT persons in pockets of the church. On the other hand, a local option policy would perhaps minimize a potential schism; if a schism were to occur, departing schismatics would undoubtedly retain their discriminatory ways. One way or the other, LGBT discrimination will likely remain in some corners of Methodism.

The Naming Project: Ten years of summer camps for queer kids and allies


Brad, Jay, and Ross at camp in their younger years

More than ten years ago, three gay Lutheran men with seminary backgrounds saw a need for “a space for youth to find community and know that they were safe and accepted for who they were.” Based upon their collaborative efforts, The Naming Project came into being and now celebrates its tenth anniversary. I blogged about The Naming Project four years ago, and more information is available on their website.

Rev. Brad Froslee is now the pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis, Jay Wiesner-Smith has returned to the secular world as a human resources person for Comcast in Philadelphia, and Ross Murray is now the Director of News for GLAAD and lives and works in NYC.

Today The Naming Project continues to provide safe, welcoming, and nurturing environments for g/l/b/t and allied youth. The dreams and work of Jay Wiesner, Ross Murray, and Brad Froslee alongside the work of a tremendous Advisory Board, congregations, and community leaders continues to unfold. There is a dream that every youth (whether g/l/b/t or allied) should know a place of acceptance and the abundant love of God. And throughout our lives we are reminded that it is an ongoing project to remember that we have been created and named as “a beloved child of God.”

On this tenth anniversary, the Naming Project is undertaking a major fundraising effort. Please help as you can, share with your friends, and point any potential camp attendees in their direction.

Following the Presbyterian General Assembly from afar

I’m a church nerd–more precisely, a church convention groupie. When my wife and I were sent as voting members to the inaugural assembly of our NE Minnesota ELCA Synod (1988), we were hooked. We returned year after year as voting members or as guests for the fellowship, the bookstore, stirring worship, and ecclesiastical politics. More recently, I have been at numerous regional Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, and UCC conventions in the Midwest hawking my books. While researching and writing Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry, I attended the Methodist General Conference of 2012, the Presbyterian General Assembly of 2012, the Episcopal General Convention of 2012, and the last three ELCA church wide assemblies.

All this is to say I feel downright left out as the Presbyterian General Assembly is currently underway in Detroit, especially because it appears that history is happening.

For Lutherans, Episcopalians, and the UCC, blessing the relationships of same-gender couples has never been a contested issue, compared to the decades-long struggle over LGBT ordination. Given the progressive DNA of the UCC, the lack of significant controversy is hardly surprising. For the Lutherans and Episcopalians, blessing gay or lesbian partners was largely left to the discretion of the pastor/priest who was free to “explore the best ways to provide pastoral care.” Such discretion has naturally rolled over into performing marriages as state after state have changed their civil definitions of marriage.

For the Methodists, performing covenant ceremonies or–God forbid, marriages–has been the LGBT issue. Beginning with the defrocking trial of Rev. Jimmy Creech before the turn of the century to the recent defrocking of Rev. Frank Schaefer, along with thousands of clergy and bishops who are willing to conduct LGBT marriages in defiance of the Methodist Book of Discipline, the Methodist journey to full inclusion still has miles to go.

Which brings us to the unique circumstances of the Presbyterians.

Ordination of LGBT ministry candidates has also been the principal source of Presbyterian controversy over the years–from judicial decisions interpreting a 1978 “definitive guidance” that prohibited LGBT ordinations, through the adoption of “fidelity and chastity” versus “fidelity and integrity” in the 1990s, through disagreement over “that which the confessions call sin” and the mysterious and erroneous reference to homosexuality in modern interpretations of the centuries-old Heidelberg Confession, through thrice-adopted reforms by general assemblies only to see the presbyteries fail to ratify, to the 2010-2011 breakthrough that allowed LGBT ordination. While the decades-long debate over LGBT ordination occupied the attention of the church, the issue of rites of blessing remained secondary. Now that ordinations of gays and lesbians are occurring regularly, attention has switched to marriage equality.

In ecclesiastical court decisions early in this century, the Presbyterian “Supreme Court” drew a bright line between clergy conducting covenant services (permitted) and officiating at legal marriages (not permitted). In fact, the earliest cases were dismissed because the purported marriage of a gay or lesbian couple was not legal in the jurisdiction in which it was performed, but that judicial dodge was no longer available as marriage equality spread from one jurisdiction to the next. Yet, when the Presbyterian Supreme Court ruled that Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr had repeatedly violated church policy by performing marriage ceremonies and remanded her case to her local presbytery to impose censure, the presbytery instead voted to support her ministry.

Presbyterian assemblyWhich brings us to General Assembly, the national gathering of the church that meets once every two years and which has ultimate policy-making, legislative authority–but often subject to ratification by the 173 regional presbyteries. Although there are numerous proposals to be considered, the principal issues are narrowed to two: an authoritative interpretation (AI) that would allow clergy, as a matter of conscience, to officiate at same-gender weddings, and an amendment to the Book of Order that would change the definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “a couple.” The first step of the process is committee hearing and recommendation. Earlier, both matters passed out of committee with strong affirmative votes (51-18 for the AI and 49-18 for the amendment). If both measures pass at plenary, the AI will become immediately effective without further action, but the amendment must go to the individual presbyteries for ratification, which will require majority action.

It’s exciting to watch history unfold, even from afar. Godspeed, Presbyterians.

Did the Movement for Marriage Equality Begin in 2008? One Chapter in a Larger Narrative

Forcing the Spring, the recent best-seller by New York Times reporter Jo Becker, purports to chronicle the back story to the sweeping success of the marriage equality movement across the nation, but critics complain that the book gives too much credit to Becker’s sources and too little to the significant contributions of others, especially earlier pilgrims in the long journey toward marriage equality. In response, author Becker acknowledges that “The book is about one chapter in a larger narrative, and that narrative includes so many people who worked so hard on this issue when the going was far tougher than it is today.”


Let us consider the role of progressive religion. Against well-entrenched religious opposition to all things gay, progressive religious leaders were early voices “crying in the wilderness,” and decades of advocacy within religious spheres have largely prepared the good soil for recent marriage equality policy breakthroughs.

In the sixties, the issue was not marriage equality but criminalization and police harassment of homosexuals. Of course, the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1969 exploded as a spontaneous backlash to a police raid on a gay bar, and Stonewall has become the iconic moment that marks the birth of the gay liberation movement.

Clergy press conference following police raid

Clergy press conference following police raid of 1964 New Year’s ball

However, nearly five years before Stonewall, the San Francisco based Council on Religion and Homosexuality (CRH) sponsored a New Year’s Eve ball in 1964 that was raided by police, and the clergy who appeared at a press conference the next day to denounce the police behavior focused the eyes of the nation on abusive police practices and policies. One commentator suggested the clergy provided the “cloak of the cloth,” a powerful and visible sign of religious support for the LGBT community. In 1965, the prestigious Christian Century Magazine suggested, “the law … should not penalize private immoralities which cannot be proved contrary to the common good.” The first LGBT policy statements of the ecumenical Protestant denominations (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ) in the late sixties and seventies called for the decriminalization of homosexuality and homosexual behavior.

Holy Union 1970

The 1970 Holy Union of Father Robert Mary Clement and John Darcy Noble, Rev. Troy Perry officiating

By the 1990’s, still long before marriage equality was on the legal horizon, many clergy conferred a blessing on the relationships of their gay or lesbian parishioners, variously referred to as “covenant ceremonies,” “rites of blessing,” commitment services,” “holy unions,” and other terms. In fact, the terminology “holy union” dates to 1970 when independent (non-Roman) Catholic priest, Father Robert Mary Clement, who had marched in his clerical robes in the first Gay Pride parade in New York City, was joined with his life partner in a religious ceremony, and the officiant was Rev. Troy Perry, who had started the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a predominantly gay denomination, months before Stonewall. In 1993, Perry and the MCC organized a Washington D.C. event they dubbed simply “The Wedding,” and Perry claimed “At least 2,600 same-sex couples, complete with tuxedos and wedding gowns, made a public commitment in a mass ritual.”

Meanwhile, the ecumenical Protestant churches wrestled with policies regarding blessing gay and lesbian couples.

  • In 1993, the Lutheran Conference of Bishops stated that although the church did not recognize an official ceremony of blessing, the bishops acknowledged the prerogative of pastors and congregations in ministry with gay and lesbian persons to “explore the best ways to provide pastoral care,” and that was widely interpreted to allow clergy discretion to preside at rites of blessing.
  • After Methodist Pastor Jimmy Creech was defrocked and Pastor Greg Dell suspended just before the turn of the century for presiding at covenant ceremonies, nearly one hundred West coast Methodist clergy jointly officiated in the covenant service of a lesbian couple. Though Methodist policy remained unchanged, the horde of media representatives and bank of television cameras at the February 2000 press conference announcing that no ecclesiastical charges would be filed against the “Sacramento 68” demonstrated that the same-sex marriage issue had captured the attention of the world.
  • When Massachusetts became the first state to recognize marriage equality in 2003, by judicial fiat, the local Episcopal bishop initially encouraged his priests to refrain from conducting marriage ceremonies, but the priests widely ignored their bishop, and within a few years, the bishop himself presided at a lesbian wedding–of two of his priests, no less!
  • On July 4, 2005, the UCC General Synod formally endorsed marriage equality with an overwhelming vote for a resolution that “affirms equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage.”
  • In the last decade, the Presbyterian journey to full LGBT inclusion was marked by ecclesiastical trials wrestling with rites of blessing, and the Presbyterian courts made it clear that rites of blessing were permitted as long as it was not a legal marriage ceremony. Yet, when the Presbyterian “Supreme Court” instructed her local presbytery to censure Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr, who has long been the “poster lesbian” of the Presbyterian Church, for officiating at legal marriages of gay and lesbian couples, the presbytery instead issued a resolution of support for Rev. Dr. Spahr’s ministry. All Presbyterian eyes are on Detroit this week where issues of marriage equality are front and center of the General Assembly.

In the last dozen years, as marriage equality has gained momentum in the civil sphere, so too has full inclusion of LGBT persons moved forward in the religious sphere, at least within the ecumenical denominations. By removing the gates to the pulpit through revisions to ministry policies–that is, by ordaining partnered gays and lesbians–the UCC (as early as the 1970s), the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and the Presbyterians have all recently affirmed that the relationships of gay and lesbian partners are to be recognized, supported, and celebrated. Without attempting too fine a point regarding a chicken or egg analysis, when the moral authority of the church swings toward inclusion, public opinion will be affected.

Finally, and especially germane to the recent sweeping success of marriage equality adjudication and legislation across jurisdictions, the role of progressive clergy in statewide pro-equality movements cannot be understated. The example of Minnesota is illustrative. In 2012, a restrictive constitutional amendment was defeated by the electorate, and marriage equality was enacted during the next legislative session in 2013. Minnesotans United was the LGBT advocacy group that successfully worked on both measures, and their strategy “refused to cede the religious ground.” Though the local Roman Catholic Archbishop was an outspoken opponent of marriage equality, ecumenical Protestant and Jewish clergy served in highly visible leadership roles. Minnesota clergy issued joint communiques, provided legislative testimony, appeared at rallies and press conferences, and a priest, a minister, and a rabbi came into a bar together in a humorous TV ad. The clergy collar was omnipresent in LGBT advocacy efforts.

Marriage is a legal contract, defined and sanctioned by the civil law but with significant religious overtones, and the voices of opposition to LGBT rights have long used religion to bolster their arguments. Because of the religious underpinnings to LGBT issues, legal and societal progress would have been slowed or thwarted without the counter-influence of activists and allies, within the church, who offered the “cloak of the cloth” from the earliest days, who provided the example of holy unions to bless and solemnize gay and lesbian relationships, and who “refused to cede the religious ground.”

The Failed Attempt to Blunt Progressive Christianity

In 1980, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and a couple of hundred thousand conservative Christians claimed “Washington for Jesus.” Months later, Ronald Reagan was elected with substantial support from Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” Thus began an unholy alliance between Christian fundamentalists and the Republican Party that now threatens to rip the Grand Old Party apart. The loss of functioning government has been collateral damage of this internecine warfare, and David Brat’s defeat of Eric Cantor is the latest and most profound example of the raging civil war over the heart and soul of Republicanism. That christianist Brat claims his victory was a God-ordained miracle is hardly surprising.

The Republican establishment has long fed the beast that now threatens to devour the party, and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman’s New York Times op-ed of June 13 offers his typical sublime insights. Krugman suggests the Republican establishment has long used the cultural warriors of the religious right to stir up the base and win elections but for the benefit of the economically advantaged. Krugman writes of the stratagem: “an interlocking set of institutions and alliances that won elections by stoking cultural and racial anxiety but used these victories mainly to push an elitist economic agenda.”

There is a striking parallel within ecumenical Protestantism.

At the same time that Ronald Reagan forged support from Christian conservatives into a winning political coalition, the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD) was founded in 1981. This organization mirrors the Republican establishment in the manner it riled up folks in the pews in order to further a largely neo-conservative economic and political agenda. The IRD’s political/economic goals include increased defense spending, opposing environmental protection efforts, anti-unionism, and weakening or eliminating social welfare programs, but those actual goals were masked by an emphasis on cultural warfare issues. Over the years, the IRD has been financially supported by a who’s who of right-wing millionaires, including Richard Mellon Scaife, Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson, Jr. and his IRD board member wife Roberta (called the “financiers” in a 2005 Time Magazine article), Adolph Coors, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

President of the United Church of Christ, John Thomas, wrote in 2006,

The right-wing Institute for Religion and Democracy and its long-term agenda of silencing a progressive religious voice while enlisting the church in an unholy alliance with right-wing politics is no longer deniable … But to play with Scripture just a bit, we doves innocently entertain these serpents in our midst at our own peril.*

The Lutheran expatriate turned Roman Catholic priest, Richard John Neuhaus, an IRD founder and longtime board member, bragged in 2005 while addressing the IRD board,

How, if at all and what ways, do we distinguish IRD from the remarkable insurgency that has rewritten the map of American culture and politics over the last 20 years, of evangelical, Catholic, generally conservative, religiously inspired political activism, dismissively called by our opponents, the “Religious Right”? How did it happen, one might ask, that IRD became in many ways an ancillary, supportive, coordinating agency for insurgencies within these three denominations–the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church-USA, and the Episcopal Church?*

The earliest splash made by the IRD was to attack the National Council of Churches by promoting the false notion that the ecumenical denominations supported Marxist revolutionaries in Africa. CBS’ 60 Minutes played the role of dupe in furthering the claim in a 1983 segment later dismissed by Don Hewitt, the 60 Minutes creator and longtime producer, as the segment he regretted most in his 36 year career. The broadcast began with the IRD leader, Richard John Neuhaus, speaking,

“I am worried – I am outraged when the church lies to its own people.” The camera moved from an offering plate in a United Methodist church in the Midwest to images of the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and then to marchers in Communist Red Square. The lengthy segment over and over suggested that the National Council of Churches (NCC) was using Sunday offerings to promote Marxist revolution. The most damaging accusation in the program was that NCC had somehow funded armed insurgents in Zimbabwe. While showing horrific footage of a slain missionary, the program implied that the NCC was responsible for the brutal murder. It was a lie that the top rated show in television told to tens of millions. The broadcast was highly damaging to mainline Protestants and the NCC.*

By the late 1980s and continuing, the IRD founded, funded, or otherwise influenced conservative organizations within the Methodist and Episcopal Churches and trumpeted the danger of LGBT inclusive policies to rally their troops. Dianne Knippers cut her teeth as a staffer for the conservative Methodist organization, “Good News.” Later, she would serve as IRD president during the height of its influence. Methodist theologian Thomas Oden was another Good News leader with ties to IRD as a member of the IRD board of directors. Current IRD President Mark Tooley is a lifelong Methodist and founder of the Methodist arm of the IRD called UMAction. The IRD also has a Presbyterian Action branch. The longtime conservative irritant within the Presbyterian Church is an organization called the Lay Committee that promotes their publication, The Layman. The self-described pillars of the Lay Committee were “People of means and action. Besides being leaders in their churches, they were leaders in corporate America.”* Within the Episcopal Church, Knippers served jointly as IRD President and organizer and leader of the late 1990s Episcopal group, the American Anglican Council, which served as chief conservative organizer at the virulently anti-gay Lambeth Conference in 1998 and as the opposition to the confirmation of Bishop Gene Robinson and all things gay in the early years of this century. Though the opponents of ELCA progressivism are not connected to the IRD, some Lutheran conservative commentators share neo-conservative political views (for example, Robert Benne, the author of The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism: A Moral Reassessment).

Over the years, the Republican establishment has stoked nativist, racist, sexist, anti-intellectual, anti-government, and anti-Muslim fears with a politics of scapegoating the immigrant, the black, the feminist, the queer, the academic, the government worker, and the welfare recipient. town-hall_thumb.jpgBy appealing to lesser instincts–especially of the angry white male–the party has enjoyed sufficient electoral success to continue feeding the beast, but Krugman’s article suggests this “bait and switch” tactic may no longer work as evidenced by Tea Party primary challenges to the party favorites. Ironically, the destabilization of the Republican Party itself would appear to be the legacy of the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and the complicity of the Reagans, Bushes, and the Republican establishment who are now being forced to “dance with the one who brought you.” While Republican self-destruction may not play out in the 2014 off-year elections, early portents for 2016 suggest a likely Democratic president and Congress, despite the built-in Republican advantage of gerrymandered Congressional districts. In the meantime, dysfunctional government will continue as the Tea Party insurgency in Congress will preclude any meaningful legislation.

While the outcome of the Republican civil war remains uncertain, the ecumenical denominations have largely resisted the contemporaneous neo-con attempts to destabilize leadership and thwart progressive impulses. For years, the conservatives used the rising tide of LGBT inclusive policies to frighten folks in the pews, but that battle is nearly won. Within the Lutheran Church (ELCA), Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ, LGBT-friendly policies are largely settled and entrenched with LGBT clergy, bishops, and high-ranking executives in the home offices all serving openly. The Presbyterians now ordain openly gay and lesbian ministry candidates and will likely endorse marriage equality in the next week. Meanwhile, the conservative opposition to Presbyterian progressivism, the Lay Committee, has chosen to stay away from the national General Assembly currently underway in Detroit–a telling admission of their declining influence. Although the battle rages within the United Methodist Church, it is only unique Methodist international polity that serves as the final barricade against LGBT inclusion (38% of all delegates at the last Methodist General Conference were foreign and staunchly conservative regarding LGBT issues), but the swelling pockets of inclusivism in local congregations and regional conferences and the ecclesiastical disobedience of Methodist clergy and bishops signal growing momentum for the cause of inclusion. After years of IRD and other conservative opposition to the innate progressivism of the ecumenical denominations, those church bodies have emerged from the fray more solidly progressive than ever. The neo-conservative intention of thwarting the social justice impulses of progressive Christianity has been a singular failure.

The media is noticing. The religious editor of the Huffington Post suggests the knee-jerk media response of running to the nearest evangelical with a bullhorn may be over in an article entitled, The Stunning Resurgence of Progressive Christianity.

*Quoted in Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism.

Breaking: Methodist trial dismissed

Bishop Martin McLee

Bishop Martin McLee

In perhaps the biggest Methodist LGBT news since the 1972 enactment of the “incompatibility clause,”* Bishop Martin McLee has just announced a complete dismissal of the ecclesiastical charges against Rev. Thomas Ogletree. Rev. Ogletree was on trial for conducting a wedding service for his gay son. What is more, Bishop McClee stated, “I call for and commit to cessation of trials” arising under the Book of Discipline provisions related to LGBT persons. This is the highest act of Methodist ecclesiastical disobedience to date, but it follows the recent actions of retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who personally conducted the wedding of two gay men, and the actions of sitting Bishop Minerva Carcaño, who offered defrocked pastor Frank Schaefer an appointment within her jurisdiction. Four other bishops have publicly registered their dissent from Book of Discipline trial proceedings.

Though it is always dicey to predict the significance of an event without the benefit of historical hindsight, this Methodist news may parallel the breakthroughs in sister denominations, including the 1996 failed heresy trial of Episcopal Bishop Walter Righter, and the legislative reversals of the Lutherans in 2009 and the Presbyterians in 2011. Certainly, there will be many jurisdictions, perhaps most, where the Book of Discipline provisions will still be enforced, but this announcement from Bishop McLee suggests a break in the dam, and the more progressive Methodist Annual Conferences on the West coast, Midwest, and East coast may soon surge through the breach.

*Pertinent provisions from the Methodist Book of Discipline

  • We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching. (1972)
  • Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. (1984)
  • Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches. (1996)

UPDATE: Religion Dispatches has published my essay, which elaborates on this historic breakthrough.

Methodists Make History, Or, an Argument for Ecclesiastical Disobedience

Methodist gays and lesbians surge forward on a rising tide

My soon-to-be-released book, Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism, chronicles the journey toward full inclusion in the five, principal mainline denominations of the US, including the United Methodist Church. Of the five, the Methodists have lagged behind, and I attended the 2012 General Conference in Florida, hoping to witness history and to be able to write a fitting final chapter for the book. However, a legislative breakthrough was thwarted due to the alliance of domestic gatekeepers with a swelling international contingent. Thus, my final chapter became How Long, O Lord?

Early chapters of the book chronicle the pan-denominational ecclesiastical disobedience that spurred change, including the irregular ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven. In 1974, eleven women challenged 2,000 years of church patriarchy and were ordained to the Episcopal priesthood, despite church canons to the contrary. In the buildup to that historic event, a rousing sermon of Dr. Charles Willie called for bishops to step forward.

And so it is meet and right that a bishop who believes that in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, ought to ordain any … person who is qualified for the Holy Orders. A bishop who, on his own authority, ordains a woman deacon to the priesthood will be vilified, and talked about, but probably not crucified. Such a bishop would be following the path of the Suffering Servant, which is the path Jesus followed. It requires both courage and humility to disobey an unjust law.

The church is in need of such a bishop today.

My book suggests that Methodist progress would similarly require the ecclesiastical disobedience of the UMC episcopacy.

Bishop TalbertAt a gathering in the makeshift “Tabernacle” that housed the allied progressive Methodist groups that trumpeted change during that 2012 General Conference, retired bishop Melvin Talbert issued a call reminiscent of Dr. Willie’s sermon 38 years earlier. “Biblical obedience demands ecclesiastical disobedience,” he intoned, calling forth his own experience in the civil rights movement.

Each day, it seems, a new Methodist story of ecclesiastical disobedience hits the newswire. The list of clergy who have defied church policy against officiating at same-gender weddings includes: the retired dean of the Yale Divinity School, a collection of Pennsylvania clergy who jointly officiated at a same-gender wedding, and Rev. Frank Schaefer, whose ecclesiastical trial resulted in defrocking. Just in the last week, we witnessed the wedding of Methodist clergy, Rev. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rev. Christie Newbill in Seattle, and the officiant was none other than their district superintendent. Dr. Brown was the first (and only?) out-lesbian ordained as UMC clergy in 1982, which resulted in the 1984 General Conference enacting a restrictive ordination policy that remains in effect today.

Methodist ecclesiastical disobedience has moved upstream from pew to pulpit to district and now to the episcopacy itself. Though the Conference of Bishops voted to institute judicial proceedings against one of their own, retired bishop Talbert for officiating at a gay wedding in Georgia over the wishes of the local bishop, individual voices in the episcopal wilderness are crying out.

Sitting bishops Peggy Johnson, Rev. Schaefer’s Pennsylvania supervisor, and Minerva G. Carcano, bishop of the California-Nevada Conference, have openly decried the discrimination written into the Book of Discipline.

Listen to Bishop Johnson:

Several statements in our Book of Discipline are discriminatory (forbidding ordination of homosexual persons, forbidding the performing of same-gender marriages, and considering the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching). There appear to be contradictions between the many affirming statements (mentioned earlier) and these statements.

Bishop CarcanoIn a watershed moment that goes beyond words to action, Bishop Carcano has invited the defrocked Rev. Schaefer to come and join the ministry of the California-Nevada Conference. Defying the action of the church court, this invitation amounts to ecclesiastical disobedience at the highest level. In issuing the invitation, Bishop Carcano writes:

[The UMC Book of Discipline is] an imperfect book of human law that violates the very spirit of Jesus the Christ who taught us through word and deed that all God’s children are of sacred worth and welcomed into the embrace of God’s grace. I believe that the time has come for we United Methodists to stand on the side of Jesus and declare in every good way that the United Methodist Church is wrong in its position on homosexuality, wrong in its exclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and wrong in its incessant demand to determine through political processes who can be fully members of the body of Christ. Frank Schaefer chose to stand with Jesus as he extended love and care to his gay son and his partner. We should stand with him and others who show such courage and faithfulness.

Legislative change in the UMC remains uncertain. The General Conference will not meet until 2016, and the political alliance between international delegates and domestic gatekeepers may remain insurmountable. In the face of such realities, policy change must come through alternate avenues, including the direct action of local clergy, district superintendents, and conference bishops.

Ecclesiastical history is unfolding before us. In the words of Episcopal Priest, Dr. Carter Heyward, one of the irregularly ordained Philadelphia Eleven,

I believe (as do many others) that, for the Church to change, the Church must act its way into new ways of thinking. The Episcopal Church will not be able to think its way successfully toward an inclusive gay-affirming reimaging of Christian marriage until there are gay and lesbian Episcopalians who are married. People act–only then do laws change. The canons and liturgies catch up with people’s lives over time. That’s how laws get changed inside and outside the church.

So, too, the Methodists. Godspeed.

Catching up with two lesbian pilgrims: Amy DeLong and Lisa Larges

Rev. Amy DeLong and Lisa Larges, two pilgrims who are featured prominently in Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism, popped up in Facebook links today.

Methodist Pastor Amy DeLong, whose ecclesiastical trial fills later pages of the book, offered a Youtube video following her monitoring of the weeklong Methodist Council of Bishops. She was disappointed in their failure of leadership. “We need to start calling them followers and not leaders,” she said. In an earlier writing, which is quoted in the book, she noted ecclesiastical handwringing and used the metaphor of the “weeping executioner.”

Lisa Larges was also the subject of ecclesiastical judicial wrangling—twice. Her path toward ordination in the Twin Cities Presbytery was thwarted by the Presbyterian courts in the nineties. Fifteen years later she tried again, and her attempt was bottled up in the courts once more, but then the General Assembly finally eliminated LGBT clergy exclusion thereby rendering the court case moot, and she is again on track for ordination. She penned a poignant retrospective in a guest blog post on which reflects upon the Presbyterian wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Her post begins:

What I’m wondering now, some two years after the vote in my denomination, (the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) to remove the bar to ordination for lgbt persons, what I’m wondering now as someone who is a part of that lgbt community, what I’m wondering now, even as we live out the denouement of that struggle, with churches leaving and the question of marriage for same gender couples still before us, what I’m wondering now, remembering those forty some years of conflict—remembering the parliamentary maneuverings and high stakes votes and judicial actions and attempts toward dialogue and church-wide studies and appointed task forces and—what I’m wondering now, feeling the weight of the needless pain that we, as a church inflicted, what I’m wondering now is: Could we have done it better? Across that forty-year span, could we have worked out our differences with less rancor and divisiveness and objectivizing and bad behavior and fear of one another?

Read the rest here.

When Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber talks, Lutherans listen

Nadia Bolz-Weber

I was one of 500 or so who packed the sanctuary of Central Lutheran in downtown Minneapolis last night to listen to ELCA rock star, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, as part of her whirlwind tour to promote her spiritual memoir, Pastrix.

Rev. Bolz-Weber, a tall, slender, dark-haired, heavily tattooed, “cyber-punk” pastor and a self-described “cranky, post-modern gal of the emerging church a la Luther,” rocked this audience, much as she did the 35,000 screaming teens and chaperones at the most recent ELCA youth convention in New Orleans. The irony is that her counter-culture appearance and hip language born of a prior career as a standup comedian (I’m sure last night was the first occasion that “F-bombs” were dropped inside this hallowed sanctuary) is used to convey a decidedly mainstream Christian, especially Lutheran, message (grace and redemption, saint and sinner, death and resurrection).

I first encountered Rev. Bolz-Weber, long before she became famous, about the time I started this blog back in ‘09, and she had started her own called Sarcastic Lutheran. At that time, I read a story in which her mission church startup to “my people,” the House for All Saints and Sinners in Denver, had provided sanctuary to a lesbian teen who had been booted from her own home. Though Bolz-Weber is straight (she talks about her really cool and good-looking husband), she has been an outspoken LGBT ally. In 2011, Pastor Nadia offered the sermon at the California Rite of Reception for seven gay, lesbian, and transgender Lutheran Pastors. One of them, Pastor Ross Merkel, had been defrocked by the ELCA in the early nineties after he came out to his Bay Area congregation, but the congregation kept him in place and a newly-elected synod bishop did not object. Pastor Nadia calls Pastor Merkel her spiritual mentor, and she embraced Lutheranism in his adult-confirmation class after a childhood of spiritual abuse in a fundamentalist, patriarchal, congregation.

Again, an irony. This outsider and pastor to the outsider has been embraced by the ELCA establishment. Though there were youngsters in the audience last night–including a carload of teens from Iowa who tweeted while traveling north on I-35, “We’re coming! Don’t start on time!”—the audience was mostly middle-aged Lutherans, even elderly, including several hundred clergy from the Twin Cities area.

Before encountering Pastor Merkel and Lutheranism, Pastor Nadia had experienced spiritual healing in AA, where she became sober “by the grace of God and in the fellowship of other recovering alcoholics.” I share this journey with Pastor Nadia, and I have given talks entitled, “I learned all I needed to know about grace in AA.” She also credits a couple of years of Wiccan involvement for healing the patriarchy-inflicted, gender scars of the church of her youth.

Queer Clergy cover jpgJust released this week, Pastrix is already appearing on best-seller lists. As an author whose own book will be released later this year (Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism), I must confess to more than a little envy. Maybe I should hire her publicist.