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COMMENTARY: United Methodist Church still wrong-headed on same-gender marriage

In 2013, the reality that the Rev. Frank Schaefer, pastor at Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Pennsylvania, will be forced to stand trial on Nov. 18 for officiating his son's 2007 same-gender nuptials is not only wrong-headed — it is also wrong-hearted.

“I love him so much and didn't want to deny him that joy. I had to follow my heart,” Schaefer told the New York Daily News.

The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the Methodist Church, however, wants to drill home to Schaefer and his allies that he — irrespective of familial love or Christian belief — blatantly and willfully violated the church's law book, the Book of Discipline, prohibiting same-gender marriages.

Sadly, little has changed in the UMC on this issue since the well-publicized trial of the Rev. Jimmy Creech in Nebraska. In 1998, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church ruled that Creech, a heterosexual ally, violated church law by blessing the union of two lesbians. Following the Judicial Council’s ruling, Creech’s contract as pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Omaha was terminated. The following year, Creech was in the hot seat again for blessing the holy union of two gay men.

For this act of ecclesiastical disobedience, that the jury felt was of biblical proportions, Creech was defrocked and lost his ministerial credentials. However many conservative United Methodist clerics felt Creech got off easy and believed that a harsher decision, banishment from the church, should have been rendered.

When asked by The Advocate that year why he continued to marry gay and lesbian couples while knowing the church’s position, Creech rightly stated the following:

“A cultural prejudice ... has been institutionalized in the church. The position of the church is wrong, it’s unjust. It’s discriminatory. It isolates a part of our population, part of the brothers and sisters of the human family. It denies their humanity, considers their own humanity to be somewhat unnatural or immoral or sinful.”

The UMC is contradictory in its policies concerning LGBT worshippers. While it states that we have and are of the same sacred worth as heterosexuals, and that it is committed to the ministry of all people regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, the church also views queer sexualities as sinful. The Book of Discipline states that sexuality is “God’s good gift to all persons” and that people are “fully human only when their sexuality is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church and society.”

However, this rule is not applicable to LGBT people.

Since the church’s conservative and liberal wings merged in 1968 to become the UMC, it has implemented stricter positions against us. In 1972, for example, UMC delegates inserted in The Book of Discipline that as a church body, “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

In 1984, the delegates barred from its general conference clerics who were “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” And in 1996, the UMC gave the ecclesiastical order that prohibited “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions,” which was affirmed by the Methodists’ high court in 1998. The church also maintains its policy requiring heterosexual clerics to remain faithful in their marriages, and for both unmarried heterosexual and homosexual clerics to be celibate.

However, the UMC’s exclusionary language and practices toward LGBTQ people will not stop those of us who feel called to ministry. If anything, it confirms our calling that much more. And not all churches allow homophobic churchgoers or ecclesial powers to stand in the way.

While it is clear that the UMC is not in lockstep with the changing societal tide toward LGBT acceptance, it is also not in lockstep with its own more progressive arm of "reconciling and inclusive" congregations. Union United Methodist Church (UUMC), a predominately African-American congregation located in Boston's South End — the epicenter of the city's LGBT community — is one of them. And it is the one institution least expected to be lauded among LGBT people of African descent because of the Black Church's notorious history of homophobia. But UUMC is a movement, and it's an example not just regional to black churches in Boston.

Since June 2011, more than 100 Methodist ministers in New England have pledged to marry gay and lesbian couples in defiance of the denomination’s ban on same-gender unions. About one out of nine Methodist clerics signed a statement pledging to open their churches to LGBT couples that stated, “We repent that it has taken us so long to act … We realize that our church’s discriminatory policies tarnish the witness of the church to the world, and we are [complicit].’’

Knowing where Methodist clerics in New England stand on same-gender marriages, Schaefer officiated his son’s nuptials here in Massachusetts.

The public trials of Creech and soon Schaefer are disciplinary means of control to evoke fear among our allies and us. While UMC’s ultimate objective is to reinforce ecclesiastical heterosexism, it also keeps the church itself trapped in its sins of both homophobia and inhospitality. This recent public act of religious intolerance by the church not only feeds into the existing climate of queer-bashing in this society, but it also has LGBT people constantly questioning their self-worth and relationship with the church and with God.

“We just love him so much it was an honor to be asked. Had I said no to him, it would have negated all the affirmations we gave him for all those year... that we believe you are just as worthy and precious in God’s sight as anybody else," Schaefer told the Patriot-News of Central Pennsylvania.

As LGBT people, we must know that this religious intolerance and spiritual abuse are antithetical to the social gospel of Jesus Christ: that all people under God have the same sacred worth — even if the United Methodist Church doesn't religiously practice it.

The Rev. Irene Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist who appears in SDGLN, The Huffington Post and other media. She was chosen in October 2009 by MSNBC as one of "10 black women you should know." Monroe has been profiled in O, The Oprah Magazine and in the Gay Pride episode of “In the Life" TV, a segment that was nominated for an educational Emmy. Several times she has received the Harvard University certificate of distinction in teaching. She is in the film, "For the Bible Tells Me So," and is profiled in "CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing up Gay in America." Visit her website here .