Below is the press release that my Important Media Contacts sent me last week, which (so as not to preempt the “We do!” group’s release of their release) I totally couldn’t share with you until this very moment!
Methodist Group to Perform Gay Weddings
In unprecedented move, network of 800+ bypasses denomination’s ban
to reach out directly to LGBT people
A group of over 800 United Methodists in New York and Connecticut today announced their intention to make weddings available to all people, gay and straight, in spite of their denomination’s ban on gay marriage. The announcement marks the kick-off of a project called We do! Methodists Living Marriage Equality. In an unprecedented move in any major religious denomination, We do! is not only bypassing the formal rules of the church, but also reaching out directly to LGBT groups in New York and Connecticut to let them know about the new network. This morning the group published a list of all its members: clergy members who will perform weddings for gay couples, lay members of the denomination who support them, and congregations who have adopted policies to formally make weddings available to all couples.
“We refuse to discriminate against any of God’s children and pledge to make marriage equality a lived reality within the New York Annual Conference, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression,” the group declared in statement called A Covenant of Conscience and signed by 162 clergy members, 721 lay people and six entire congregations. In all, 73 congregations within the New York Annual Conference (NYAC) are represented among the signers. 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 here.
“My ordination vows require me minister to all people in my congregation,” said Rev. Sara Lamar-Sterling, the minister at First and Summerfield United Methodist Church in New Haven, CT. “This is about pastoral care, about welcoming all people, but especially the marginalized and the oppressed, like Jesus did.” Lamar-Sterling and her clergy colleagues are risking their jobs and their careers by taking this stand, but they say their integrity as pastors leaves them no choice but to refuse the church’s mandate to discriminate. Over the years, many individual United Methodist clergy have defied the church’s ban, but the We do! project marks the first time an organized network of clergy has done so, and done so with the support of many hundreds of lay members of the church.
“The recognition of the full humanity, sacred worth, and equal rights of gay and lesbian people is crucial to the civil rights struggle of our time. Gay, lesbian, and straight United Methodist laity and clergy are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” the Covenant of Conscience states, citing Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. “The continuing denial of full access to all the rights and privileges of church membership in the United Methodist Church is causing deep spiritual harm to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and is a threat to us all.”
The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline, the rulebook that governs the country’s third largest Christian denomination, states “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” It is one of several anti-gay provisions of the church, which since 1972 has declared “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The church General Conference meets quadrennially to revise the Discipline and the issue of LGBT exclusion has been hotly debated at each General Conference in the last 40 years. The next General Conference will be April 24 through May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Florida.
The We do! project has been over a year in the making and has been followed by similar efforts in 11 other conferences within the UMC. All told, 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 growing pastoral movement has caused a stir within the church and is expected to have reverberations at the upcoming General Conference.
We do! Methodists Living Marriage Equality is sponsored by Methodists in New Directions (MIND), a grassroots organization working in the New York Annual Conference of the UMC dedicated to ending the church’s prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people. It is co-sponsored by the NY Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), an organization bringing people together to work for peace and justice in the church and the world. Both organizations are independent of the United Methodist Church. More information on the initiative is available on the MIND website at www.mindny.org.
“Whoa!” I thought upon first ogling the release, “that is a lot of Methodists! This is such a huge story! I should totally snag an interview with Rev. Sara Lamar-Sterling, the woman quoted in this press release!”
My heart quickened at the thought of interviewing this renegade Christian leader, this bold iconoclast, this trailblazing visionary who was willing to defy authority, buck convention, cleave to God’s truth, and let the chips fall where they may. Was there any way TIME magazine wouldn’t pick up this story? (They’re still publishing TIME magazine, right?)
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So I set up the interview. (That’s right. That’s how I Rolodex.)
I like to begin my interviews with controversial mavericks by asking an eye-opening zinger of a question that, like a speeding harpoon of inquiry, plurges straight into the very heart of the issue at hand.
“Are you bummed” I began with Rev. Lamar-Sterling, “about having to go to hell forever?”
She laughed. “Gosh, I hope that doesn’t happen. But I’m not worried about it. Hell is a creative idea dreamed up by Dante and friends.”
Oh. Well. Okay. Not quite the paradigm-buster I was after, but whatever.
She definitely seemed nice.
“Are you scared you might lose your job for doing this?” I asked with edgy provocativeness. I pictured Rev. Lamar-Sterling out on mean streets of New Haven, CT., in her raggedy clerical robes, dejectedly holding out a shiny gold collection plate to passers-by.
“No, not really,” she said cheerily. “There are many steps that would have to happen in order for any of us to actually lose our positions within the church.”
“But it could happen, right?” I asked with an air of conspiratorial subterfuge that I hoped she’d find contagious.
“It’s in the realm of possibilities, yes. But it’s not anything I’m afraid of. In any account, the much bigger picture, for we who have come out in favor of marriage equality, is the fact that gay and lesbian people are excluded and discriminated against every single day of their lives. That’s what really matters here. They’re the ones really bearing a risk out in the world. Compared to theirs, our daily risk is much smaller.”
Oh. What a totally friendly and good-natured point.
“Have you been having to put all this together in secret?” I asked, because who isn’t intrigued by a sneaky pastor?
“No, not in secret,” said Rev. Lamar-Sterling disappointingly. “We’ve been openly working on this for years. And we have our website, which is our main communication tool. We’ve always been very open about talking about this, and sharing our purposes and goals, and collecting signatures and so on. It’s all been very aboveboard. A great many people within the Methodist church believe in marriage equality, and so we’ve just been honored to facilitate and advance that conversation. And through initiatives like ‘We do!’, we look forward to doing a great deal more of this in the future.”
“How did your church take this radical move on your part?” I asked her. I pictured the congregants of First and Summerfield United Methodist Church of New Haven, CT up on their feet, screaming, railing, gnashing their teeth, pulling their hair, threateningly brandishing rolled-up church bulletins. Lighting Frankenstein villager torches.
“They love it,” she said. “They’re a reconciling congregation, so they’ve been very excited about the whole project. In fact, I actually had to slow them down a bit. I had to explain to them how this is a process, how we needed to work within the larger body of the New York Annual Conference, to bring everyone along at the same time. But they’ve been absolutely supportive of this every step of the way.”
I was starting to feel TIME waving good-bye to me.
“You’re straight, right?” I asked lamely.
“Yes, I am. And married.”
“I don’t suppose you’re a transvestite from Transylvania, ” I almost asked before jamming my fist in my mouth. Instead, I asked her about where “We do!” fits in with the larger body of all Methodists. Rev. Lamar-Sterling then explained to me how there are different “conferences,” or regions, of Methodists, across the country, and how each, reflecting the sensibilities of its citizens, is necessarily dealing with the issue of marriage equality in its own way, and at its own speed.
“The same sort of thing we’re doing here in the NYAC is currently going on in ten other Methodiest conferences,” she said. “The difference is that while their efforts are geared toward clergy only, ‘We do!’ involves clergy, laity, and congregations. That’s what makes what we’re doing so exciting. ‘We do!’ is a strong collective of faithful Christians people who have come together to affirm that a gay and lesbian couple have as much right to the sacred bond of holy matrimony as anyone else.”
The reverend then explained about how The Book of Discipline, which constitutes the law and doctrine of the United Methodist Church, is a living document, and not, as she put it, “a baseball bat for hurting others,” and how every four years (starting in 1784!) representatives of all the Methodists get together, talk about what’s in The Book of Discipline, make whatever changes or adjustments to its text are voted necessary, and then publish a new edition. As I am sure you read in the press release above, the next Methodist General Conference will be April 24 through May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Florida.
Boy, big American Christian denominations really put the organized in organized religion. It’s all so startlingly/boringly democratic. (Fact break: In the United States, The United Methodist Church ranks as the largest Mainline denomination, the second largest Protestant church after the Southern Baptist Convention, and the third largest Christian denomination. As of 2007, worldwide membership was about 12 million: 8.0 million in the United States and Canada, 3.5 million in Africa, Asia and Europe. So. There it is.)
“Ultimately, I and others who believe in the sanctity of marriage equality would like the language of The Book of Discipline to be changed to reflect full affirmation of gay and lesbian equality. But will those changes be made in 2012? They very well might. But either way, it will ultimately happen. I’m confident that Christ will guide the United Methodist Church to become the welcoming, just, and reconciling church it was meant to be.”
Finally, I asked Rev. Lamar-Sterling if there was anything she’d like to say to anyone reading this.
“I would like everyone to know,” she said, “that all people are created in God’s image; all are sacred. God’s love is not discriminatory, or selective; it does not include some, and exclude others. It is for all. I want gay and lesbian people to know that they are welcomed in the United Methodist Church. Come, join us, as we, along with you, say, we do!”
Boy. The Rev. Lamar-Sterling is one perky pastor. I would so go to her church.
As I later reflected back on my conversation with the good reverend, I fell asleep. I dreamed I was a Jimmy Olsen-style reporter, pitching to the editor of big New York news magazine the story of the “We do!” movement.
“Eight hundred!” I told him. “That’s a lot of Methodists!”
“Look, kid,” said the editor. He was sitting on a green leather high-backed chair behind a wooden desk you could land a helicopter on. He was gruff, but fair. Wore suspenders. But whatever.
“I ain’t saying this is no story at all,” he said around his chomped cigar. “But it isn’t exactly a four-ton reptile stomping down Broadway tossing cars and eating people, is it? I mean, whaddaya really have here? A bunch of Christians who looked into their hearts, found the God in whom they believe telling them that gay people have the same right to get married, under God, as straight people, and who then organized themselves into a body that reflects that belief. Right, kid?”
“Well, I mean–yeah. I guess that’s basically about right.”
“Right. Kid, that ain’t news. That’s Methodists organizing. This is about meetings, and procedures, and conversations, and collective discernment, and all of those things which slowly but surely have always changed, always improved, always evolved the body of Christ on earth.”
“Holy cow,” I said. “Who are you?”
“I’m God,” he said softly. “And things are unfolding exactly as they should.”
I looked out the window at a brilliant rainbow arcing over the city.
“Now if you come across any giant dinosaurs wreaking havoc,” said God, “you call me.”