Church advocates acceptance, love -- starting with its transgender leader

The Baltimore Sun

The pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church wasn't worried about the congregation's reaction to his transition from Ann Gordon to Drew Phoenix.

A banner reading "Praising God, Seeking Justice," hangs outside the Charles Village church. Rainbow cloth is draped from poles inside the Sunday room where members worship. And decades ago, the congregation became an early advocate for full participation of people within the church regardless of sexual or gender identity.

Now Phoenix, who chose the reference to the mythological beast for his last name as a symbol of his rebirth as a man last year, is helping St. John's rise from its own ashes.

The church's sanctuary was destroyed by a fire in 1981, and the congregation had dwindled to about eight or 10 dedicated members when Phoenix -- then known as the Rev. Ann Gordon -- arrived five years ago.

Today as many as 50 adults and children regularly attend services there, and the congregation is beginning the first stages of renovating its building for more community use.

"Everyone can sort of walk in on Sunday, and everyone just sort of accepts them," says Kara Ker of Wyman Park, who joined in 1998. "He has definitely created a space where everyone's ideas are heard, where people have a chance to grow."

And St. John's became the nurturing environment that Phoenix needed to finally recognize and accept that the female gender he was born with did not match the male identity he says he believes God had given him.

"It made it much easier. To be supported by the congregation I'm serving is pretty remarkable," he says.

The 48-year-old grew up in a small farm town in southern Ohio and became a Methodist as an adult, while attending graduate school at American University.

Phoenix felt the call to ordination and entered Washington's Wesley Theological Seminary in 1986.

He was assigned to several congregations in Maryland before the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church placed him in charge of St. John's in 2002.

"I don't believe in coincidences. It had to be divine intervention," Phoenix says.

Founded in 1828, just five blocks north of the birthplace of Methodism in the United States, St. John's was an early base of Methodist Protestantism.

It emphasized justice and opposed the establishment of a hierarchy in favor of power to the laity, Phoenix says.

In the 1970s, it became the 13th congregation to join the Reconciling Ministries Network, which promotes full participation of gays and lesbians in ministry.

In addition to inviting in gay, lesbian and transgender members, the church operates an emergency shelter and has housed political refugees.

"It had a long history of being inclusive," Phoenix says. "I was elated to be appointed here."

When he decided to pursue surgery and hormone treatment last year, he told members individually and then in larger groups.

"I assumed it would not be a problem at St. John's, which it was not," Phoenix recalls.

The congregation's Web site bills St. John's as "worshipping a radically inclusive God." Last month, church members marched in the city's Pride Parade with a float expressing the theme "This ain't your daddy's church."

But some within the United Methodist Church are raising questions about the roles transgender people ought to serve, calling for a broader denomination-wide discussion.

Last month, Phoenix was received with applause when he discussed his transgender identity and decision to live as a man during the regional conference's annual meeting.

But some fellow clergy called for a "rule of law" on the decision to reappoint him to St. John's, although the Methodists' Book of Discipline -- a compilation of church legislation -- has no references to transgender issues.

The ruling would be reviewed by the Judicial Council, the denomination's highest legal authority, which meets in October.

"We've been very thankful that so far the church has had no restrictions for transgender folks who are called to serve in ministry," says the Rev. Troy Plummer of the Reconciling Ministries Network.

Phoenix's transition and reappointment could join a broader discussion about the place of lesbians and gays within the church.

Methodism does not now allow noncelibate gays and lesbians to be ordained or appointed as clergy. And the growth of the church in Africa -- where congregations of all Christian faiths tend to be more conservative politically and ideologically -- is sure to create more tension with respect to the issue, Phoenix says, as it has with the Episcopal Church.

"I think the Council of Bishops is in this very challenging place, of balancing new constituency and their beliefs and politics, ideological understandings with everyone else's," Phoenix says. "There's a [feeling of] not wanting to rock the boat."

The discussion could lead to the examination of questions such as marriage of trans- gender Methodists. As an unmarried pastor, Phoenix says he took a vow of celibacy. But he is legally considered a male in the state of Maryland and can get married here, he says.

Few other Christian denominations have ruled on the matter above the parish or diocesan level. Catholics have banned trans- gendered people outright from religious order; there are isolated examples of ordained transgender clergy in large denominations.

About 60 transgender clergy attended a transgender religious summit last fall organized by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion.

"There are no real policies on the books of the denominations," says the Rev. Dr. Jay E. Johnson, the center's acting executive director. "It's an open question for the U.S. legal system and states, as well as in religious circles."

While serving at St. John's, the pastor became aware of the possibility of female-to-male sex changes. The change would end the dissonance between his birth gender and his perception of himself -- as well as the perception of those around him.

For years, people have yelled at him or called security when he entered women's restrooms. When he would introduce himself as "Ann," they would comment on his interesting family name -- for a guy.

He was even asked to present identification when picking up his credentials at two annual meetings of the Baltimore-Washington conference.

Phoenix had initially served as pastor of St. John's as well as Rodgers Forge United Methodist. After Phoenix told Bishop John R. Schol about his plans to transition to life as a man, the pastor left the Baltimore County church and the St. John's congregation increased its contribution to his salary.

"I was really pleased that Drew was able to do something like this without fearing for his job and without fearing for his church," says Lexa Newman, who followed her pastor from Rodgers Forge UMC. "Now Drew gets to be the gender he has identified as being all his life, without being a different person than the phenomenal person that Ann was."

During a recent Sunday morning, about 30 people sat in folding chairs arranged in a semicircle facing Phoenix, who wore khakis, not vestments. Children ate snacks at low tables to the side, and piano music accompanied all four verses of each hymn.

The pastor, standing near an informal altar, led a discussion rather than a traditional sermon. Afterward the group gathered for what they described as a "cook-in" due to the bad weather.

Phoenix "has been a wonderful shepherd to this congregation," says Carrie Frias of Lauraville, noting that God's message hasn't changed despite the pastor's transformation. "There's a presence. This is somebody who is happy with who they are and happy to reflect who they are."

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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