By Becky Garrison
When sex columnist Dan Savage spoke at Union Theological Seminary in early October, he pushed those Christians who claim to be inclusive and radically welcoming to stand up and make some noise or else they will once again allow anti-gay Christians to control the conversation.”
On October 17th, 2011, approximately 900 United Methodists in New York and Connecticut put Savage's words into action. This group, which included 165 clergy, pledged to make weddings available to all people despite their denomination's ban on same sex marriage. In all, 74 congregations within the New York Annual Conference (NYAC) are represented among the signers with six entire congregations pledging to be inclusive to all individuals regardless of their sexual orientation. NYAC is the regional church body representing United Methodist congregations from Long Island to the Catskills and in southern Connecticut. The full list of signers, as well as the text of the covenant, is available here.
This announcement marks the kick-off of a project called We Do! Methodists Living Marriage Equality, a venture spearheaded by Methodists in New Directions, an organization affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network, a national movement formed in 1982 with the intent purpose of “mobilizing United Methodists to create full inclusion of all God’s children regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” This project is co-sponsored by NY Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), a grassroots organization working in the NYAC of the United Methodist Church (UMC) dedicated to ending the church’s prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people and Methodists, and both organizations are independent of the UMC.
According to Dr. Dorothee Benz, Chair of Methodists in New Directions and one of the organizers of the We Do! Project, while the passage of the Marriage Equity Bill in New York State energized the group, they began this process of discernment of moving the church toward inclusion in 2010 when the prospect of this bill ever becoming law was not yet an issue. Thus began a one-on-one effort of signing people on to this covenant of conscience and intentionally move ministry to this area. During this time, similar pledges to marry all caught on like wildfire over various Methodist conferences. Benz reflects, “Our denomination mandates that we discriminate, but we choose to extend pastoral care to everybody,” adding that at present over 1,000 clergy in 19 states and the District of Columbia have signed a pledge vowing to extend their ministry to all couples seeking the church’s blessing for their relationships.
The Rev. Vicki Flippin, Associate Pastor for the Manhattan-based Church of the Village, shares her faith journey toward marriage equality that began in 2008. In this year, she became a pastor in Connecticut at the age of 25, Connecticut achieved marriage equality, and two young women fell in love while attending the justice-affirming church where she served.
I told that couple—who thought they had found a sanctuary from discrimination and hate—that they were not welcome to be married in their sanctuary by their pastor. I believe I decided in that moment to stand in judgment before my God instead of before my church, and I do not know to this day whether it was the right decision. But I knew that, if I was going to commit this sin, I could not do it quietly. I confessed my sin to my church in a sermon, and together we decided to become a Reconciling Congregation and joined the movement for LGBT equality in the United Methodist Church. And, when the opportunity came to covenant with other clergy to stop discriminating, I signed on with gratitude. This summer, I moved to New York to begin working at a new church. On the very night I moved—tired and surrounded by boxes—the New York state legislature passed marriage equality. It is with a serious sense of purpose and a smile on my face that I now embark on this journey of non-discrimination with my fellow clergy in this place and in this time.
Unlike the majority of mainline denominations, who have made strides in recent years toward granting LGBT people access to the rite of marriage, the UMC continues to “support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” Also, while they acknowledge “that all persons are of sacred worth,” they also single out LGBT individuals as being unable to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church because “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Over the years, individual Methodist clergy have been disciplined for marrying same sex couples. However, this initiative marks the first time that a significant body of Methodists have stood in solidarity on this issue. While trying to prosecute such a large number of clergy could prove to be unwieldy and cost prohibitive, the the actual impact this action will have within this denomination remains unclear. Flippin states that “each clergy person on this list is taking a risk.” She elaborates:
Performing same-sex marriages is a chargeable offense in our denomination and could lead to consequences as dire as removal of our orders. We are risking our our jobs, our careers, the incomes that support our families, and the ability to do the work which God has called us to do in the church. This is why community is essential. Because of the We Do! project and its covenant, we know that if we get into trouble because of our actions, there is a community of over 800 people who are waiting to shower us with spiritual and material support; this makes all the difference. Through this struggle, I have come to believe that power and privilege are not worth having if one is not willing to lay them down for the right cause, and this is the right cause and the right time for me and over 800 others signers. Together, we will make equality and justice a reality in our conference.
The NYAC has a history of pro-inclusive legislation, and issued a resolution at their 2010 Annual Conference titled "Ministering to All in Covental Relationships." But with Bishop Park on personal renewal leave until the second week of Novermber, he is not available to address the media on behalf on the Conference regarding this issue.
In terms of the UMC's more conservative elements, the Wesley Fellowship, a group of clergy and laity that serve as a voice for evangelical and orthodox pastors and churches in the Wesleyan tradition within NYAC, have not commented as of yet on this particular initiative. However, they posted a letter that was published in Conference's September 2011 newsletter supporting the denomination’s ban on same sex marriage. Along those lines, the right-wing Institute on Religion and Democracy, which has been highly critical of the UMC's moves toward inclusion, and same sex marriage overall, has yet to comment on this announcement.
When asked to comment, the UMC's press sent links to their The Book of Discipline that state their affirmation of traditional marriage and the denomination's position on homosexuality. Benz expect their actions will have reverberations at UMC's forthcoming General Conference which will be held April 24 to May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Florida.
Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches.. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.