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Activists prepare for ecumenical ordination Robin Russell, Oct 10, 2008
PHOTO BY BRUCE ANDERSEN/WIKIMEDIA
Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, Baltimore, Md.
By Robin Russell Managing Editor
A gay-rights organization will hold an ordination service in October for two women who were denied credentials in the United Methodist Church.
Annie Britton, who is a lesbian, and Jenna Zirbel, a straight woman whose inclusive theology prohibited her from being ordained as a United Methodist, will be ordained in an Oct. 19 ecumenical service at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Baltimore, Md.
Organized by the progressive Church Within a Church (CWAC) Movement that according to its Web site is “dedicated to being the inclusive church,” the service will present the women with ecumenical credentials for ministry and offer vocational support.
The ordination is not sanctioned by the United Methodist Church. The 2008 General Conference, the denomination’s top law-making body, upheld the church’s stance that homosexual practice is inconsistent with Christian teaching and prohibits ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.”
The Rev. Kevin Johnson, a United Methodist who leads CWAC’s coordinating team, said the ordination event was six years in the planning, and that participants were approved in March after completing “a rigorous process” that mirrors the United Methodist path to ordination. But the ordination is not intended to disrupt the United Methodist itinerant system, he added.
The women said they had completed a Master of Divinity degree, prepared written and videotaped documents, responded to the traditional questions asked of candidates on Wesleyan theology, Christology, ethics and the communal nature of the church, and were supervised as they experienced pastoring in the church.
However, United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the denomination’s Council of Bishops, said the ordination event raises several ecclesial questions for him on “accountability, authority and leadership in the life of the church.”
“Who is the credentialing authority, and in what venues might the credentials be recognized?” he asked. “Also, if these folks are ordained, what’s their membership?”
United Methodist clergy are members of an annual conference, not an individual church, he pointed out. And though the Baltimore event will certainly “create conversation,” he was not certain it will ultimately be helpful for the denomination.
“I’m not sure this will bring the kind of dialogue that helps us to move forward in the church on issues of human sexual expression and ordination,” Bishop Palmer said.
Cathy Knight, a United Methodist layperson who is CWAC’s executive director, said the ecumenical movement was founded to model “what we hope the church would one day become.”
“Ordaining people who had been barred from ministry was one of those early things that we’d imagined,” Ms. Knight said. “We hope everyone would see this as a huge celebration of a justice ministry, that there is a way to remain Methodist and to find wholeness in remaining Methodist.”
The event is ecumenical, not United Methodist; organizers included Lutheran, Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ and United Methodist lay and clergy. They chose Mount Vernon Place UMC because of its historic connection to the birthplace of American Methodism. (Francis Asbury preached from the church’s pulpit, and the famous 1784 “Christmas Conference” that established Methodism met just a few blocks away.)
The Rev. James Taylor, Mount Vernon Place pastor, said the church’s decision to host the ordination was based on showing hospitality and to advance the democratic principle of “making room for dissent.” He said the church has gotten support from “Reconciling” United Methodist congregations in his conference, those inclusive of gays and lesbians.
“It’s the right thing to do in our minds. We think we’re promoting reasonable dialogue,” Mr. Taylor said.
“Obviously the church is divided, and we can’t remain so. The question is, how does God call people into ministry? Are we in a position to dare question the Holy Spirit on the call to ministry?”
A spokesperson for the Baltimore-Washington Conference declined to comment on the event.
But Patricia Miller, executive director for the Confessing Movement, a conservative caucus within the United Methodist Church, said the ordination does not meet the requirements for United Methodist ordination and the women would not be eligible for appointment in the denomination.
“I’m disappointed in this approach,” Ms. Miller said of the ordination service. “It does not reflect the position of the United Methodist Church, and the United Methodist Church has continued to be consistent in what they have put in the United Methodist [Book of] Discipline.
“Since 1972 these issues have come up at General Conference, and again this year were upheld by General Conference.”
Participants described in an e-mail response why they are pursuing this ecumenical ordination.
Ms. Britton, 53, said she was denied ordination in the United Methodist Church because she and her partner are married. She has a Master of Divinity degree and a Master of Sacred Theology from Boston University School of Theology, and is a ThD candidate in practical theology.
She served a local church for three years, first as supply, and then as a licensed local pastor. The couple live in Rhode Island and are members of Mathewson Street UMC in the New England Conference.
“I am called to ordained ministry within Wesleyan Methodism,” Ms. Britton said. “I hope this event serves as an invitation for all of us to walk together toward a future of hope and inclusion based upon Christ’s teaching that we are to love God, our neighbors and ourselves.”
Ms. Zirbel, 53, who is married and has two children, said her participation in the CWAC ordination service is a way to be supportive of gays and lesbians by reflecting “God’s mercy and justice.” She began the path to ordination in 1999 with the support of her covenant group at Grace United Methodist Church in Des Moines, Iowa. She earned a Master in Theological Studies degree and a Master of Divinity from Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
She then had a one-year internship with the British Methodist Church, serving a 14-church circuit north of London, England. In 2004, she was appointed to a five-point charge, followed by other positions in rural Iowa. Though her interview committee recommended her for ordination in 2007, her inclusive theology prevented her from being ordained in the Iowa Conference.
“I have a pastor’s heart,” Ms. Zirbel said, “and I have to be a part of God’s loving presence in the world today—a love that’s about bringing people into the church, not keeping them out. This ordination recognizes and honors those whom God has called.”
Mr. Johnson, the convener, is pastor of a hybrid United Church of Christ & Reconciling Methodist congregation in Palm Springs, Calif., and hopes the ordination service will model for others what an inclusive denomination could look like.
“We’re a people with Methodist DNA,” he said, “so we think that the Methodist heritage of bold grace and social justice leads us to figure out ways to ordain qualified candidates who also have that Methodist DNA and intentions, but who are not accepted by the current system for who they are.
“I believe that we will be providing for people a vision and a real picture in this day for the way it can be in the Christian reality to come.”