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UM clergy vow to wed gay couples Sam Hodges, Jul 15, 2011
By Sam Hodges Managing Editor
It began recently as a small movement in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Now organizers say that more than 900 UM clergy, in conferences across the country, have pledged to officiate at same-sex weddings and other services celebrating homosexual unions, in defiance of church law.
Those who support the effort and those who oppose agree that it represents a significant development in the denomination’s decades-long conflict over homosexuality.
“I think the spirit is at work for many of us to know that the discriminatory language and actions of the [Book of] Discipline of the United Methodist Church are really untenable, and they’re unjust,” said the Rev. Bonnie Beckonchrist, pastor of First UMC in Arlington Heights, Ill.
But the Rev. Robert Renfroe, pastor of discipleship at The Woodlands UMC in The Woodlands, Texas, and president of Good News, an unofficial caucus within the UMC that strongly supports a traditional view of marriage, sees the potential for crisis.
“If we allow widespread disobedience regarding same-sex weddings and [civil] unions, the churches in the growing parts of the connection, U.S. and worldwide, will either split or leave the denomination,” he said.
A new tactic
Most states have statutory or constitutional language, or both, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and constitutional amendments to that effect have typically won voter approval by wide margins.
But last month, New York became through legislative action the sixth and largest state to legalize same-sex marriage, which also is legal in the District of Columbia. Five states have legalized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
A May 20 Gallup Poll for the first time found majority support in the United States for legalizing same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, the UMC’s Book of Discipline, its law book, describes the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” prohibits “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from serving as clergy, and says UMC clergy cannot officiate at same-sex weddings or other ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.
Repeated efforts to change those positions at General Conference—the quadrennial gathering that governs the denomination—have fallen short. In 2008, delegates voted 501 to 417 to retain the “incompatible” statement.
The next General Conference is less than a year away, and it will see an increase in delegates from socially conservative African countries, leading many to conclude that prospects remain dim for changing the Book of Discipline regarding homosexuality.
The Rev. Bruce Robbins, senior minister of Hennepin Avenue UMC in Minneapolis and former general secretary of the UMC’s General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, began the movement of clergy pledging to officiate at same-sex weddings and civil unions.
“My covenant to preaching and living out the gospel requires me to be inclusive of all people,” he said.
Dr. Robbins acknowledged he had been discouraged by failures to effect change in the church’s positions on homosexuality either legislatively or through Judicial Council rulings, and sought a different approach.
He used a moment of personal privilege during a clergy business meeting at the Minnesota Conference’s recent annual gathering to read what he called the “Equality for All in Christian Marriage” statement.
It says, in part, “We joyfully affirm that we will offer the grace of the Church’s blessing to any prepared couple desiring Christian marriage. We are convinced by the witness of others and are compelled by Spirit and conscience to act.”
Dr. Robbins had no reason to believe his idea would take off.
“I knew there were seven or eight people who would join me, but not much more,” he said. “By the end of the annual conference we had 70 signatures.”
Word spread through media coverage and the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus committed to expanding the rights of homosexuals within the denomination.
The statement jumped to other annual conferences, including New England, which collected 90 signatures.
“We knew it had happened in Minnesota, about three days prior to our annual conference,” said the Rev. Leigh Dry of the New England Conference. “We decided we were going to try to get a critical mass to sign.”
Other New England clergy have signed since the meeting, and by July 12 the total for that conference was 187, or about 18 percent of retired and active clergy, said Alexx Wood, conference communications director.
The Northern Illinois Conference had 213 signers by July 13, the most of any conference, said the Rev. Gregory Gross of Chicago, an organizer of the effort nationally.
Mr. Gross said the Minnesota statement had been adapted in some conferences, but that the idea of clergy being willing to officiate at same sex unions is in all statements.
And he said his best count, again as of July 13, was that 916 clergy had signed, from at least 11 conferences. They range across the country and include New York, Oregon-Idaho, Rocky Mountain and Tennessee, he said.
In several conferences with signers, including Minnesota, same-sex marriage and civil unions are not legal. But Dr. Robbins said a couple could, for example, marry legally in Iowa and come to Minnesota for a church wedding officiated by a United Methodist pastor. “The state may not recognize the marriage, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important for them and for the community,” he said.
Dr. Robbins acknowledged that leaders of the movement are grappling with whether to make public the names of all those signing.
“In Minnesota, we posted the list at annual conference but have not distributed it since then,” Dr. Robbins said. “Some people fear the list could be used in problematic ways for harassment purposes. We have a couple of meetings planned to discuss the issue more thoroughly. One of our signatories has had a complaint filed against him.”
The Rev. Thomas Ogletree, an ordained United Methodist minister and professor emeritus of ethics and religious studies at Yale Divinity School, described the clergy movement as “a form of civil disobedience within the church,” aimed at bringing about a “broader movement for change” within the UMC.
The Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, co-pastor of the Hope.Gate.Way United Methodist community in Portland, Maine, definitely seeks change. But he believes he and the other signers are being obedient.
“This action is faithful to the witness of Scripture, and faithful to our Book of Discipline, which requires that pastors celebrate the sacraments and the rites of our church and minister to all persons,” said Mr. Ewing-Merrill, whose wife and co-pastor, the Rev. Sara Ewing-Merrill, joined him signing the statement and rallying support within the New England Conference.
He added: “Internal contradictions in the Book of Discipline that require clergy to exclude loving same-gender couples while preaching a gospel of love and inclusion mean that clergy are put in this position of making ethical decisions about which rules to follow.”
But the Rev. Larry Baird, pastor of Trinity UMC in Grand Island, N.Y., and a former district superintendent, reads the Bible as supporting current UMC positions on homosexuality.
“We need to be welcoming to everybody in our conferences, but I don’t think we can compromise on what the church traditionally has considered biblical principles,” he said.
Mr. Baird also doesn’t buy the obedience argument from those signing the statement.
“If a pastor chooses to do this, as long as General Conference and the Book of Discipline remain the same, they need to be prepared to suffer the consequences of that. And they’ve broken covenant with the rest of us,” Mr. Baird said.
Test of resolve
There have been seven church trials in the last 20 years for clergy officiating at same-sex ceremonies, according to the General Board of Church and Society. The most recent occurred last month, as some clergy were signing the statements.
In that trial, the Rev. Amy DeLong was convicted by a jury of her Wisconsin Conference peers of having conducted a holy union ceremony for a lesbian couple in 2009.
She received a 20-day suspension from ministerial functions and was told to prepare a document “outlining procedures for clergy in order to help resolve issues that harm the clergy covenant, create an adversarial spirit, or lead to future clergy trials.”
That hundreds of clergy would sign statements saying they will officiate at same-sex unions at least poses the prospect of official complaints leading to many more trials.
“We might in fact have many people making complaints,” said Ms. Beckonchrist. “At the same time, the system will struggle when there are many to whom they must impose punishment or even the process of a trial.”
Mr. Renfroe, of Good News, thinks the UMC can and must enforce the Book of Discipline.
“The problems are not so much practical as a problem of resolve,” he said. “Will our bishops be determined enough to hold people accountable for breaking our covenant?”
Bishop Peter Weaver of the New England Conference spoke carefully when asked about the clergy under his supervision who have pledged to officiate at same-sex ceremonies.
“My feeling is, knowing many of these pastors, that really this is not meant to be a shot at the church, but it comes out of their heart to serve all the people,” he said. “These are pastors that are also certainly aware that their decision may have consequences if a complaint is brought.”