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.