Two women blocked from ordination as United Methodist ministers because one is a married lesbian and the other disagrees with church rules on gay rights received "extraordinary ordination" in Baltimore yesterday. Organizers said it was the first such action by dissenters hoping to change Methodist policies toward gays.
Neither woman will be eligible for assignments to lead Methodist churches under existing policies, but they both believe their new credentials will make them eligible for other jobs within the church, or as ministers in other denominations.
"This day is historic. We have all chosen to live the future now," said Annie Britton. Her legal marriage three years ago to another woman in Massachusetts ended her path to ordination within her church.
Now the Rev. Annie Britton, she plans to work in church ministry and outreach with a United Church of Christ congregation in Rhode Island.
Current rules in the United Methodist Church welcome homosexuals as members, but regard the "practice of homosexuality" as "incompatible with Christian teaching." As a consequence, "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" cannot become ministers.
The Rev. Jenna Zirbel, who was ordained with Britton, was unanimously recommended for ordination last year after years in Methodist posts in Iowa, but she was blocked by the Iowa Annual Conference, she said, because of "my full support for gay rights and my commitment to all marginalized people."
Attempts to contact United Methodist officials, including Bishop John R. Schol, head of the church's Baltimore Washington Conference, for comment were unsuccessful.
Yesterday's ceremony at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Mount Vernon was ecumenical, attended by sympathetic United Church of Christ, Lutheran and Presbyterian clergy from across the country. It was organized by the Church Within a Church Movement, composed of U.S. Methodist pastors and church members who seek to change church policies by setting an alternate example.
"We are trying to model now what the church will be in the future," said the Rev. Kevin A. Johnson, executive director of the organization. He is a gay Methodist minister who serves a United Church of Christ congregation in California.
He said there are needs within the United Methodist church that are not being met because of its policies toward gays. His group hopes that Methodists will see his movement meeting those needs "in a manner of fairness, equality and faithfulness," and "evolve into a Christian church that is fully inclusive."
Yesterday's colorful and upbeat ceremony was held in Baltimore because the city was the birthplace of American Methodism in 1784, and the gothic Mount Vernon Place church holds both the pulpit and the burial stone of Francis Asbury, the first bishop of the Methodist Church in America.
The Rev. James E. Taylor, pastor at Mount Vernon Place, said he checked with the bishop before agreeing to host the event, and that Schol did not object. "[The conference] will tell you [renting space] is a local church matter." The legitimacy of the ordination was not discussed.
Taylor said his diverse, 300-member congregation has numerous gay and lesbian members. Had they been asked to vote on the inclusion of homosexuals in the Methodist ministry, they would have said yes, "overwhelmingly."
"My personal heart supports it," Taylor said. But his denomination's leadership does not.
Like many other Christian denominations, Methodists have wrestled in recent decades with many issues surrounding sexual orientation, periodically tightening, and softening, policy language.
Current rules officially welcome homosexual members, noting that, "Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth." But ordination is banned.
The Rev. Susan Morrison, a retired United Methodist bishop who attended yesterday's service, said sentiment on the ordination of gays is changing. A legislative committee at the General Conference in April voted to lift the ban. But the measure failed when the whole conference voted.
Morrison said the problem is in part generational, with younger members more accepting of gays. It's also cultural, with growing delegations from foreign countries overwhelming those U.S. delegates seeking to lift the ban.
Retired Bishop Jesse R. Dewitt, 89, said he's seen Methodists first resist, then accept active lay participation in services and the ordination of women, and finally end the separation of congregations by race.
"I hope and pray it will not be another generation beyond mine until this will be completed," he said.
Britton, 53, has an undergraduate degree in communication from Bridgewater (Mass.) State College.
She earned a master's degree in divinity and became the pastor of a local Methodist church. But she was removed after she married her partner in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriages are legal. She is pursuing a doctorate in practical theology and spirituality at Boston University School of Theology.
Zirbel, also 53, is heterosexual and married with two children. Raised in the Midwest, she earned an undergraduate degree in speech and language pathology and later began her pursuit of ordination with a Master's of Theology from the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
She works now as a case management technician with the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York, teaches Bible school and works in a "street ministry" with her husband, a Presbyterian minister in Schenectady.
United Methodist Church positions on ordination of homosexuals: "While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."
Source: United Methodist Church Book of Discipline