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New England Methodist Clerics Join National Movement to Marry Gays in Defiance of Church Law

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jun 27, 2011
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Even as gay and lesbian families in New York celebrate their newly won equality in the arena of marriage rights, New England Methodist clergy are throwing themselves into the fray to change church law, the Boston Globe reported on June 26.

Though the national policy from the Methodist Church is to ban marriage between consenting adults of the same gender, over one hundred of the denomination’s clerics in New England have signed on to a vow that they will provide marriage ceremonies for same-sex families. That number translates to about one in nine Methodist clergy in New England, the Globe article said.

The clerics run the risk of punishment from their superiors, but thus far they have given no indication of regret -- except to say in a statement that they should have done it sooner.

"We repent that it has taken us so long to act," the statement read. "We realize that our church’s discriminatory policies tarnish the witness of the church to the world, and we are [complicit]," the Globe article quoted the statement as saying.

Over 70 Methodist clerics signed on to a similar pledge in Minnesota earlier this month.

A spokesperson for the Methodist Church’s New England Conference told the media that in light of the penalties they could face, the clerics were making "quite a statement." Among other possible consequences is the possibility that clerics who marry same-sex couples could be ejected from the ranks of the church’s clergy.

It’s not a risk that the clerics who have signed on take lightly, said LaTrelle Miller Easterling, a Boston pastor whose church, Union United Methodist Church, is located in the city’s South End, a longtime gay neighborhood.

"We’re laying on the line our ordination that many of us have worked four to eight years to get, as well as the expense and time of the seminary," Easterling told the Globe.

Even so, it’s a matter of principle from which marriage equality advocates within the church’s clergy will not back down, seeing the issue as central not only to the lives of gay and lesbian parishioners, but also as a contradiction in the church’s essential philosophy of acceptance and justice, the Globe article indicated.

"I certainly stand by this movement," Easterling said.

"Support for same-sex marriage has percolated inside The United Methodist Church since 2008, when the church’s top legislative body, the General Conference, took a vote that narrowly affirmed the denomination’s stance against same-sex unions," noted the Globe article. That year’s General Conference saw Methodist clergy and laity, each of which has equal voice, defeat a proposal to permit marriage equality 501-417. The vote also left in place church prohibitions on sexual contact between consenting adults of the same gender.

But hundreds of Methodist ministers across the country object to the policy, the article said, and clerics in several states -- including Illinois, Minnesota, and New York, where marriage equality has just become legal -- have already signed a vow to marry gays and lesbians.

The next General Conference will take place in April of 2012. Spokesperson Alexx Wood told the Globe that the issue will most likely emerge once again at the General Conference, and that the church has wrestled with the question for more than thirty years. Next spring’s General Conference is likely to be colored by New York’s just-passed marriage equality law and by rapidly growing acceptance of gays and lesbians and their families in American society at large.

"Last month, the Baltimore-Washington Conference passed a resolution -- subject to approval by the General Conference -- that would allow same-sex marriage in places where civil law already allows it," noted the Globe article.

Earlier this month in St. Cloud, at least 70 clerics belonging to the Minnesota United Methodist Church signed on to a statement that said they would perform marriage services for gay and lesbian families.

The statement’s mass signing came in the wake of that state’s Republican-dominated legislature approving a ballot initiative that will go before voters in the next election. If passed by voters, the initiative will amend the Minnesota state constitution and outlaw access to marriage equality by same-sex couples.

The clerics signed the statement while attending the Minnesota United Methodist conference, a yearly event.

But not all clerics in the Methodist Church agree that moving forward in defiance of the church’s Book of Discipline, its codified laws and practices, is the correct response.

"There are justice issues" faced by GLBT people of faith, agreed the Rev. Daniel Weaver of New Hampshire. "I don’t argue that at all. I just don’t think this is the best way to deal with those issues."

Weaver, who is retired, added, "The attempt here to leapfrog into solving these issues by using marriage as a tool is an overreach."

The role of gays in church life and the question of whether, and how, to honor their family commitments has been a fraught one in many denominations. The global Anglican Church faces a schism over the issue, with tensions among the denomination’s branches reaching back to the 1970s and the role of women in the church.

The elevation of a gay man, V. Gene Robinson, to the position of bishop in 2003 accelerated the church’s impending breakdown. International pressure from less gay-friendly branches of the church, including calls for the North American branch to "repent," led to a suspension on further gay and lesbian clergy being elevated to bishop, until the elevation last year of an open lesbian, Mary Glasspool, to the status of Suffragen Bishop in Los Angeles.

In at least one area of the country, gay and lesbian Episcopalian clergy are being instructed to marry their same-sex life partners, if they have any. The Chicago Tribune reported on June 1 that with the commencement of civil unions in that state, clerics who previously would have had no choice but to pursue their relationships outside of the ties of legal and religious marriage now have the option to enter legally recognized partnerships. Episcopal bishops in Chicago have issued instructions for gay and lesbian clergy to exercise that option. Lutheran bishops have done the same.

Some denominations claim that homosexuality is a matter of personal choice and conduct. The Catholic Church recognizes that gays and lesbians do not "choose" their sexual orientation, but even so teaches that sexual relationships between persons of the same gender are "inherently evil." The Church also declares that God intends gays and lesbians to live in celibacy.

Biblical scholar Jonathan Dudley, author of a recently published book that examines how political rhetoric re-casts the meaning of Biblical passages to serve church authorities, has appeared recently on CNN and spoken to other media outlets about the gap between evangelicals’ Biblical-based teachings regarding gays and the practice of heterosexual divorce, which is common even among conservative Christians.

"Many conservatives use the Bible as a definitive source for why gays shouldn’t be afforded the right to marry," Dudley told Northeast Texas newspaper the Gilmer Mirror in a June 4 article. "The problem is that there is very little in the Bible about same-sex pairings, and what’s there can easily be interpreted in multiple ways."

On the other hand, Dudley noted, the Bible is clear and consistent on the issue of heterosexual divorce, condemning it many times more often than it addresses same-sex relationships -- a fact that evangelical leaders all too often gloss over.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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