More than 200 United Methodist clergy in Illinois have pledged to flout church policy and bless unions for same-sex couples, putting their jobs, homes and callings in jeopardy if couples take advantage of their offer.
Methodists in the Northern Illinois Conference also called on the global church to impose no more than a 24-hour suspension for clergy who defy the policy.
Elders, deacons and pastors took their stand after civil unions in Illinois became legal this month. But they said their determination to support same-sex unions has been fueled further by a church trial last week in which a jury found a Wisconsin pastor guilty of performing a holy union for a lesbian couple, suspending her for 20 days.
"Unfortunately the church has lost its prophetic voice on this issue," said the Rev. Gregory Gross, a deacon who organized the campaign. "Our civil society has taken the lead. Now the church is trying to catch up."
The suspension of the Rev. Amy DeLong in Wisconsin is the first Methodist-imposed penalty for blessing a same-sex union since the Rev. Gregory Dell, pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago, returned from a yearlong suspension after blessing the partnership of two men. Since then, the Northern Illinois Conference has been a leader in pushing for marriage equality in the Protestant denomination worldwide.
The Rev. Lois McCullen Parr, one of the 208 clergy who signed the pledge, said she did so as a matter of conscience and an extension of what she believes to be the gospel of love.
"We seek to be faithful as pastors to everybody," said Parr, who succeeded Dell as pastor of Broadway. She attended the trial in Wisconsin last week.
"The sadness is we're here again," she said through tears. "The hope is that maybe this is the last church trial for this."
The Rev. Marti Scott, pastor of Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church in Oak Park, also signed the declaration. She said it grew out of an expectation that congregants who got a civil license would also seek a blessing in their church.
"The expectation is that their pastor will pastor them just like they'd pastor any other couple in the church," Scott said. "We receive them into membership, baptize their children, bury family members, so withholding this possibility around civil unions seemed quite unnatural."
The United Methodist Church remains one of the last mainline Protestant holdouts when it comes to blessing same-gender partnerships and openly gay clergy.
When civil unions went into effect June 1, Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, leader of the United Methodists' Northern Illinois Conference, applauded the "validation and inclusion through civil unions to those who have long been marginalized," but reiterated that church law still barred clergy from officiating.
Some clergy attribute the Methodists' unchanging position largely to logistics. Every four years, delegates from around the world meet, including delegates from countries where lawmakers have sought to impose the death penalty for homosexuality.
"There are people in Uganda who think that to be a good Christian is to hate gay people and you should eliminate them like you should eliminate any other sin," Scott said. "We're trying to wake people up to the fact that hurting anyone and not loving them is where the sin is."
But the Rev. Scott Field, pastor of Wheatland Salem United Methodist Church in Naperville, said the church's moral conscience has prevented any hasty policy shifts that simply conform to culture.
"If someone has ethical opposition to that lifestyle, this has been equated with hatred," he said. "We're having a hard time disagreeing with one another without calling each other names."
Field said he doesn't condone violence against gays and lesbians, but also believes the church should not condone homosexuality. He called the clergy's pledge of disobedience an example of the Northern Illinois Conference's trademark "hijinks."
"Northern Illinois fancies itself as some sort of prophetic voice in the denomination," Field said. "It's highly unfortunate. It politicizes some legitimate issues about gay and lesbian relationships and leaves us with another round of conflict."
Dell said spiritual violence in the name of the church has worsened because so many pastors have discriminated against gays and lesbians or stayed silent since 1972, when the United Methodist Church began struggling with issues around sexual orientation.
"A number of people have been hurt by the church ... saying that in their love they are not worthy of God's love," Dell said. "That's blasphemous from my perspective."
Dell, 65, who took leave from Broadway in 2007 after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, said support for marriage equality has grown since his 1999 trial. But he also said there is a greater sense of solidarity and a movement.
With that in mind, Gross won't disclose the names of those who pledged to disobey church law if couples come forward seeking ceremonies. He has encouraged pastors to co-officiate holy unions so they don't suffer the consequences alone.
"Our power is in our collective power," Gross said. "What speaks is there are 208 of us who have said this. We know who to call upon so we can be there for one another."