Tag Archives: Methodist

Moses gazing across the Jordan to the promised land

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.

Holy Union 1970

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.”

Indeed.

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.

Cast of Characters: Amy DeLong

As I turned to my conversation partner he immediately said to me, “Amy, tell me about the most important thing in your life.” I wanted to tell him about Val, but I couldn’t. I wanted to tell him about her children whom we were raising together, but I couldn’t. So I talked about my cat. Now aside from looking profoundly superficial – the most pathetic part was that I didn’t have a cat at the time. My life and my loves had been reduced to telling make-believe stories about a cat I didn’t have.

Amy DeLong and Val Zellmer

So says Methodist clergywoman Amy DeLong who eloquently states the case for honesty in spite of potential consequences, and she now self-describes as an “out, partnered lesbian and United Methodist minister.” Her honesty resulted in an ecclesiastical trial in Wisconsin in 2011 that was the first in the current wave of Methodist clergy trials that may have brought the church to a tipping point in the Methodist journey toward full inclusion. In particular, Rev. Amy and her partner, Val Zellmer, were honest in registering under Wisconsin’s domestic partnership law, and Amy honestly noted that she officiated at a covenant ceremony of a lesbian couple when she filed an annual report of her clergy activity.

Reluctantly, Bishop Linda Lee pressed ecclesiastical charges. Several trial prosecutors were appointed and subsequently resigned, and the trial process barely moved forward until the seasoned inquisitor of the gatekeepers, Thomas Lambrecht, became trial prosecutor. With an angular face and a disarming cant of his head to the right, Lambrecht had become inquisitor general on behalf of Good News (an organization of conservative Methodists) years earlier, and his guiding hand remains behind many of the ongoing Methodist trials. Finally, in June, 2011, the trial convened in a small church in Kaukauna, halfway between Green Bay and Oshkosh in East-central Wisconsin. Despite the isolation, the national press followed the trial closely.

The clergy jury acquitted Rev. DeLong of the charge of being a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” because prosecutor Lambrecht’s clumsy attempt to prove genital contact failed but convicted her of the second charge of officiating at the holy union ceremony of the lesbian couple. Indeed, the couple testified on Rev. DeLong’s behalf during the trial. Then, the jury did something radical in the imposition of a penalty. Rev. DeLong was merely to spend a purposeful twenty day suspension discerning whether or not she would develop recommendations for the church on how better to deal with clergy conflict.

She accepted the challenge of writing the recommendations.

The paper was a year in process and resulted from collaborative meetings (four of them) between Pastor DeLong, Bishop Lee, District Superintendent and complainant Rev. Jorge Luis Mayorga, Board of Ordained Ministry chair Rev. Richard Strait, and Pastor Wesley White, who served at Pastor DeLong’s request. It was presented to the Wisconsin Annual Conference in June, 2012. Her eleven page document is a tour de force for the cause of LGBT inclusion that indicts the church, its leaders, and its membership for a lack of courage. Her argumentation is summarized in the words of Dr. King, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” and the concept of “weeping executioners” that “describe those who express concern for the oppressed, but will not leave their place in the hierarchy of oppression.

Earlier that spring, Rev. DeLong had become the de facto leader of the gays, lesbians, and allies that engaged in direct action ecclesiastical disobedience by moving to the center of the plenary floor at General Conference 2012 and refusing to leave. Rev. Amy negotiated an agreement that allowed a gay man to offer the opening prayer for the afternoon session, and the president of the Council of Bishops, Rosemarie Wenner, began the session with an acknowledgement that harm had been done to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people during the Conference, which had once again failed to remove onerous LGBT policy provisions from the Book of Discipline. Rev. DeLong continues to advocate directly with Methodist leadership—the Council of Bishops last fall and soon with the Connectional Table, and her activities may be followed at Love Prevails website.

Rev. Amy has been an invaluable source and fact-checker for Queer Clergy, and she has offered this blurb for the book’s back cover.

Holmen has captured in detail our fervent belief in the grace of God and the gospelstrength of our cause. I am grateful that this narrative of our risk-taking saints and sages is preserved under one cover.

Where to buy the book

Print copies are available from Amazonthe publisherBarnes and NobleCokesbury, or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook. For iPad or other Apple users, you may order through the iTunes bookstore. Search on RW Holmen.

This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer ClergyAs with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book. Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)

1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)

1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)

1996 Walter Righter (Episcopal Bishop whose heresy trial opened the door for queer clergy)

2000 Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Joseph Sprague, and Jack Tuell (Methodist trials to punish clergy who performed covenant services for same-gender couples)

2001 Anita Hill (extraordinarily ordained Lutheran)

2003 Gene Robinson (gay bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire)

2004 Karen Dammann and Beth Stroud (Methodist clergy put on trial for being lesbians)

2007 Bradley Schmeling and Darin Easler (defrocked Lutheran clergy who were the first to be reinstated)

2011 Scott Anderson (first gay Presbyterian to be ordained following policy change)

California, here I come

Here’s my itinerary for a week-long speaking and book signing tour out west. Presumably, weather won’t interfere like it did for my recent Chicago tour.

Old First Presbyterian San Francisco

The tour starts with a visit to a historic congregation in the heart of San Francisco. Organized in 1849, Old First claims to be the oldest Protestant congregation in California. Pam Byers, formerly executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and a congregational elder, is handling the arrangements. I’ll be there Monday, March 31, at 7:30 pm.

Pacific School of Religion Berkeley

On Tuesday, I’ll cross the Bay to Berkeley and climb “Holy Hill” to the Pacific School of Religion where I’ll be hosted by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Ministry and Religion (CLGS). CLGS will soon enter its fifteenth year of “creative scholarship on the interrelations of religion and sexuality / sexual orientation.” I’ll speak in the Bade Museum beginning at 6:30 pm on Tuesday, April 1.

St. Mark Presbyterian Newport Beach

After midweek visits with seldom-seen family and friends, I’ll start a busy weekend in greater LA with a book signing event on Friday, April 4, at 7:00 pm. St. Mark is a thriving, 50-year-old suburban congregation that retains a heart for mission.

Bethel Lutheran Church Los Angeles

For a congregation that features Sanctuary Yoga and Sanctuary Hula, an author book signing may be a bit tame. I’ll visit Bethel on Saturday, April 5, at 7:00 pm.

Claremont United Church of Christ

I’ll preach at both services on Sunday morning, April 6 with informal book discussions after each service. This congregation dates to the nineteenth century when it was the only Protestant church in this college town nestled beneath the San Gabriel Mountains on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. Many of the parishioners are residents of Pilgrim Place “an intellectually/theologically stimulating, ecologically sensitive, personally active environment.”

Claremont United Methodist Church

I’ll move across town for a Sunday afternoon 2:30 event hosted by the local reconciling community. Several of my contacts recommended this congregation as an appropriate venue because of its strong record of support for the LGBT community.

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

Cast of Characters: Pastors Karen Dammann and Beth Stroud

In 2004, a pair of Methodist trials sandwiched the General Conference and an intervening Judicial Council decision. Clergywomen Karen Dammann and Beth Stroud had earlier come out to their congregations and conferences, one on the West coast and one on the East, not so much as acts of ecclesiastical disobedience but because “I could no longer live the life of a closeted lesbian clergyperson (Dammann), and “not telling the whole truth about myself has been holding me back in my faith (Stroud).” For each woman, it was a matter of personal integrity.

The West coast trial of Rev. Dammann came first. On March 17, 2004, Rev. Dammann had her day in court before a jury of her clergy peers. The trial would play out in the pages of the secular press and in daily, sometimes hourly, news releases from the UMC news service that were posted to the UMC website. The issue before the court was whether Pastor Dammann was guilty of “practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings.” A few days before the trial, she had married Meredith Savage, her partner of nine years.

An early witness required assistance to take the stand; blind and retired, Dr. Robert Walker had served in parish ministry and also had chaired the Board of Ordained Ministries when Karen Dammann went through the process years earlier. The crowd murmured when Dr. Walker testified that his own ministry was “incompatible with Christian teachings” because he was blind. He referred to Leviticus 21 that decreed that a blind man should not be a priest (not allowed to approach God). The onlookers snickered when he added that the Levitical law-code also prohibited clergy “broken-footedness” because defense counsel Rev. Robert Ward happened to be hobbled with a splint on his foot. So it went for three days. The prosecution essentially relied on Pastor Dammann’s own acknowledgement of her sexuality and relationship status.

On the third day, the jurors began deliberations; after an evening adjournment the deliberations continued the next day (Saturday). For hours the press and the public waited. Dammann, Savage, and their five-year old son prayed in the sanctuary, and supporters milled about in quiet conversation. Finally, at 3:45 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, the jury verdict was announced. Nine of the thirteen jurors were required to convict, but the prosecution didn’t even get a single vote for conviction; instead, there were eleven votes for acquittal with two abstentions.

The outcry was immediate. Many bishops harrumphed.

“A clear sign of rebellion,” said the statement of Georgia Bishops Lindsey Davis and Mike Watson.

“Incomprehensible that a clergy jury can place itself above the law,” said North Carolina Bishop Marion Edwards.

“A serious challenge to the order of the church,” said Central Pennsylvania Bishop Neil Irons.

Emotions hadn’t yet cooled when the 2004 General Conference convened in Pittsburgh a mere month after the Dammann jury nullification verdict. For the gatekeepers, the General Conference provided the means to circumvent the rule that jury acquittals were not appealable. They would ask the Judicial Council for a declaratory judgment to interpret the decision of the trial court.

In a sleight of hand that would make an impartial jurist cringe, the “Supreme Court” accepted jurisdiction and rendered lip service to the principle that the “Judicial Council has no authority to review the findings of that trial court” before proceeding to gut the decision of any import. The Judicial Council stifled the jury verdict and suffocated Dammann under the weight of doublespeak: “[this decision does] not address the case of the Reverend Karen T. Dammann. This decision shall be applied only prospectively … [but] a bishop may not appoint one who has been found by a trial court to be a self-avowed, practicing homosexual.”

Since clergy appointments are made annually, Pastor Dammann was effectively barred from future ministry. It was also a clear warning to the bishops of the church–a shot across the bow of the episcopate– enforce the rules of good order and kowtow to the company line. As a dissenting opinion claimed, it was also a consolidation of authority in the national church at the expense of individual annual conferences. The traditional prerogative of annual conferences to ordain, appoint, and oversee clergy had been effectively usurped by the General Conference.

The Rev. Stroud trial began on December 1, 2004. Three days earlier, on Sunday evening, November 28, 2004, Pastor Stroud celebrated the eucharist with her congregation. The mood was solemn under the pall of the Judicial Council Decision and General Conference actions of the previous summer. Many were aware that this would probably be the last time Pastor Stroud would have authority as minister of word and sacrament. As she began the communion liturgy, she stumbled on the words, then regrouped, “This could potentially be the last time, and I do it wrong!” The congregation laughed, and she continued, “Rejoice …”

Pastor Stroud’s partner, Chris Paige, was there at her side, and both sets of parents attended the trial to offer support. Chris’ mother, Carolyn Paige, wrote of the trial proceedings at Camp Innabah in eastern Pennsylvania:

Camp staff shuttled jurors and family members up the hill to the camp gymnasium, which served as the courtroom. When it wasn’t raining, we walked. Chris and Beth walked, too. Cameras clicked whenever they came up the hill because the press was out in force. Along with Alan and Susan Raymond, who were producing the PBS documentary “The Congregation,” there were reporters from CNN, the Associated Press, United Methodist Church news, local newspapers and TV stations. Whenever we came out of the gym, there were likely to be six TV vans, that many video cameras, and a dozen microphones. The press seemed confounded by Beth’s attitude; they could not understand her not being angry and belligerent.

Many in our church families shared the pain of this trial. I was honored to wear a rainbow stole that had been worn by an observer at Rev. Karen T. Dammann’s trial earlier in the year. Many of the camp staff and other church staff, while upholding the required neutrality, were privately supportive. I was drawn to a woman who worked in the church. She could not show her support publicly. She could not express the pain she felt publicly either. I could. And so I cried for her.*

With jury instructions that left little wriggle room, the jury still barely convicted Pastor Stroud by a vote of 7-6 and stripped her of her clergy credentials. Subsequent appeals did not change the result. The rigidity of the UMC’s actions the previous summer had proved to be unyielding. Pastor Stroud’s congregation immediately re-hired her as a lay minister, and she continued as before but not as celebrant of the sacraments. She remained so employed for nearly four years before she returned to academia to seek a teaching career.

*Reprinted with permission of the author, Carolyn Paige, on the website of Christian Feminism Today, http://www.eewc.com/BookReviews/church-trial/

The book is now available!

Print copies are available from Amazonthe publisherBarnes and NobleCokesbury, or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook. For iPad or other Apple users, you may order through the iTunes bookstore. Search on RW Holmen.

This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer ClergyAs with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book. Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)

1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)

1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)

1996 Walter Righter (Episcopal Bishop whose heresy trial opened the door for queer clergy)

2000 Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Joseph Sprague, and Jack Tuell (Methodist trials to punish clergy who performed covenant services for same-gender couples)

2001 Anita Hill (extraordinarily ordained Lutheran)

2003 Gene Robinson (gay bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire)

Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Joseph Sprague, Jack Tuell

The Methodist journey, on the national level, has always been one step forward but two steps back. With the first whiff of queer clergy in 1972, the delegates to General Conference responded with “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching.” A dozen years later, following the ordination of lesbian Joanne Carlson Brown by Bishop Melvin Wheatley, a General Conference resolution decreed, “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve.” Another dozen years passed, and General Conference delegates responded to “covenant ceremonies,” “rites of blessing,” or “holy unions” by adding a provision in the Social Principles, “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” With painful irony, a UMC pastor noted,

In my not entirely inglorious career, so far, I have blessed motorcycles, packs of dogs, a time capsule, mobile homes, insulation and even a toilet, but were I to bless the union of two Christian people (who were gay or lesbian), it would be an offense, chargeable before a trial.

Over the years, Pastor Jimmy Creech of Nebraska had performed many covenant services without penalty. In September, 1997, he  performed a covenant service in the sanctuary of his church, First United Methodist of Omaha, but he then faced ecclesiastical charges based upon the recently enacted provision in the Social Principles. At his trial in March, 1998, his defense argued that because the prohibition was contained in the Social Principles of the Book of Discipline, it was merely instructive and not prescriptive. After all, the preface clearly stated that Social Principles are “not to be considered church law.” No Methodist had ever been tried for any reason contained within the Social Principles. The jury would agree with Creech’s defense, and he was acquitted in March, 1998.

But then, the Judicial Council, the “Supreme Court” of the UMC, overreached by decreeing that the prohibition contained within the Social Principles “has the effect of church law, notwithstanding its placement in [the Social Principles] and, therefore, governs the conduct of the ministerial office.” That ruling came too late for the first Creech trial, and the jury acquittal was unaffected. But, when Pastor Creech officiated at another covenant ceremony in April of 1999, a second jury convicted him and defrocked him in November of that year. Pastor Gregory Dell of Broadway United Methodist Church of Chicago was also convicted of presiding at a covenant ceremony. The membership of Broadway UMC was 30% gay when Pastor Dell performed a covenant ceremony on September 19, 1998 for two of his parishioners. Bishop Joseph Sprague of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference reluctantly filed charges:

Despite my high regard for the Reverend Dell, as a person of integrity, who possesses an enviable record of pastoral faithfulness and effectiveness, my evaluation of The Reverend Dell as an exceptional pastor, and my own theological and pastoral disagreement with this component of church law, I do hereby file a formal complaint.

Pastor Dell was convicted in March, 1999, and he was suspended from his appointment to Broadway UMC. Initially, the suspension was indefinite, unless Pastor Dell signed a written pledge to refrain from further covenant services, but on appeal, the suspension was limited to one year, and Pastor Dell was not forced to sign a pledge. During his suspension, Pastor Dell served as Executive Director of In All Things Charity, and his colleagues in the Northern Illinois Annual Conference showed support by electing him as a delegate to General Conference 2000. He was reappointed to Broadway UMC by Bishop Sprague after his year-long suspension.

Joseph Sprague and Gred DellBishop Sprague became an outspoken advocate for the cause of full inclusion, and he was arrested for protesting, not once, but twice, at the 2000 General Conference. Bishop Sprague and Pastor Dell are locked arm-in-arm in this photo. Can someone identify others? In 2011, I had the privilege of having breakfast with Pastor Dell, now disabled with Parkinson’s, near his Chicago home. I also spent an hour with Bishop Sprague in a car ride from his speaking engagement in Rockford to O’Hare airport. He stated that signing that complaint against Pastor Dell was the one regret of his episcopacy. The presiding officer at Dell’s ecclesiastical trial was Bishop Jack Tuell. The experience changed him, and he also became an advocate for LGBT inclusion.

I was wrong. It was experience that showed me I was wrong … Ecclesiastically speaking, the decision was correct. As I understand the Spirit of God, it was wrong … I began to see the new thing God is doing.

Bishop Tuell passed away just a week or so ago. I had visited with him at the 2012 General Conference. During the spirited Friday gathering in the Tabernacle, in which Bishop Melvin Talbert and others roused the crowd, frail Bishop Tuell struggled to make his way through the mass of onlookers to reach the dais to stand in solidarity with numerous other active and retired UMC bishops.

The book is now available!

Well, sort of. It is in and out of availability with online vendors, apparently because shipments have been delayed by January weather, but it is available directly from the publisher or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook and other epub format devices.

This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer ClergyAs with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book.

Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)

1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)

1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)

1996 Walter Righter (Episcopal Bishop whose heresy trial opened the door for queer clergy)

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.

Cast of characters countdown: Melvin Wheatley

The Methodist ecclesiastical trial of Rev. Frank Schaefer has dominated the weekly news cycle. Rev. Schaefer has become the latest icon of resistance to oppressive Methodist LGBT policies after he was convicted of the heinous crime of presiding at the marriage of his gay son.  Several weeks earlier, retired Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert was the center of the news for presiding at a gay marriage in Alabama. For that, the Methodist Council of Bishops has decreed that ecclesiastical charges be brought against one of their own. I heard Bishop Talbert predict his own actions during a rousing speech outside the convention hall in Tampa that hosted the 2012 Methodist General Conference. “Biblical obedience demands ecclesiastical disobedience” he said then to a roused-up audience still smarting from legislative defeat the day before. Meanwhile, ecclesiastical charges are pending against esteemed Methodist ethicist and former dean of Yale Divinity School, Rev. Thomas Ogletree, for officiating at the legal marriage of his gay son. These three martyrs are the latest in a long line of straight allies who have incurred official Methodist wrath for daring to suggest that the emperor wears no clothes.

The first of these was Bishop Melvin Wheatley of Colorado. Bishop Wheatley was already a veteran of edgy social justice actions when he refused to assent to an onerous episcopal message (a collective statement of all Methodist bishops) at the 1980 General Conference. When the episcopal address parroted Methodist homophobia, “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” Wheatley responded, “I will not accept [this statement]. It states as an absolute fact what is an insufficiently documented opinion: that gay persons can’t be Christians.”

Earlier, he had moved into the home of Japanese Americans sent to an internment camp during WWII in order to protect the vacant home from vandals, and he also exchanged pulpits for a month with a black minister of a black congregation in Los Angeles in 1964 as racial unrest simmered, ready to boil over.

Bishop Melvin WheatleyAfter publicly voicing objection to the 1980 episcopal address, Bishop Wheatley then acted on his own words. In 1982, he ordained an open lesbian to the ministry of word and sacrament. To the best of my knowledge, Joanne Carlson Brown remains the only out gay or lesbian ordained as Methodist clergy because the 1984 General Conference reacted to her ordination by expressly prohibiting ordination of “self avowed practicing homosexuals,” and this policy remains in effect today. Of course, there are countless gay or lesbian Methodist clergy, but most are closeted and none were out at the time of their ordination.

The LGBT activism of Bishop Wheatley wasn’t finished. That same year of 1982, a gay youth pastor was outed and lost his position with a Denver area church. Bishop Wheatley then appointed Julian Rush to an inner city congregation. Though the pay was miniscule, Bishop Wheatley attempted to preserve the clerical credentials of Rush. A Methodist pastor from the south attempted to bring ecclesiastical charges against Wheatley for this appointment, and Wheatley faced sharp questioning at a hearing. He did not knuckle under, and he pointedly told the panel, “Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God’s grace.” Charges were dropped.

A significant component of Rush’s youth ministry was as lyricist, composer, and director of religious musical drama, and his youth group often went “on the road” to perform Rush’s creations.

Here’s a sample:

Being down is like down on the ground

With nobody, no place to go;

When the big creatures push you around,

And they make you feel … Oh, I don’t know,

It’s a feeling that’s more like a pain in your heart,

And you feel like … you feel like … a worm.

Now an ant is an ant

And a worm is a worm

But an ant has to crawl

And a worm has to squirm,

So an ant shouldn’t bother

Befriending a worm

Since a worm cannot crawl

And an ant cannot squirm

We’re different and different we’ll stay,

It’s just God’s will.

It’s just God’s way.

From The Resurrection Thing by Julian Rush

 

This is the twelfth installment in the series Cast of characters countdown. I will continue to post biographical notes about the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in my soon-to-be-released book, Queer Clergy.

Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)