Transgender minister is reappointed

Pastor leads Charles Village United Methodist church

May 25, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

A year ago, the Rev. Ann Gordon received her routine reappointment as minister of a Charles Village Methodist congregation.

Yesterday - after undergoing a sex-change operation and taking on a new symbolic name - the Rev. Drew Phoenix received another one-year contract to head St. John's United Methodist Church.

"This is about more than me," Phoenix said after the decision by the bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. "This is about people who come after me, about young people in particular who are struggling with their gender identity. I'm doing this for them."

The decision came after a 2 1/2 -hour closed meeting with Methodist clergy, as well an emotional open session with about 1,600 clergy and laypeople gathered in Washington. While Methodists do not permit non-celibate gay clergy, no rules deal with transgendered ministers.

"I am here to say today that as of July 1 Reverend Phoenix will be reappointed to the St. John's congregation," Bishop John R. Schol told the conference, which represents nearly 700 churches in Washington, central and eastern Maryland, and parts of West Virginia.

Phoenix, 48, talked to the group about both his personal experiences and his nearly five-year leadership of the 50-member church on St. Paul Street, which bills itself as worshiping "a radically inclusive God."

"The gender I was assigned at birth has never matched my own true authentic God-given gender identity, how I know myself," Phoenix said. "Fortunately today God's gift of medical science is enabling me to bring my physical body in alignment with my true gender."

The pastor said in an interview that he hoped to spark conversation about it "because I find conversation has been lacking."

Phoenix first spoke with Schol about a year ago, then met with members of his congregation individually. He followed up with small-group discussions and finally a full congregational meeting.

The pastor said that during that time, he underwent the surgery and hormone treatments necessary to be considered male in Maryland. He chose his last name for the symbolism of the mythical beast: rebirth out of ashes.

The congregation has indicated full support of Phoenix, Schol told those gathered at yesterday's meeting.

There is evidence that the St. John's congregation is healthy. Worship attendance has more than quadrupled, Phoenix told the conference. Financial donations to the church, known as stewardship, have tripled, and families with children have returned, he said.

His statements were met with applause, and some people rose to gave him a standing ovation. They greeted him with hugs and even tears afterward.

"This is one of the most powerful witnesses that this conference has heard in many years," said the Rev. Dr. Frank E. Trotter Jr., senior minister of the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington. "I'm sure it will be disturbing to some, but it takes us into a new area the church needs to address."

But representatives of a conservative Methodist group maintain that the matter deserves to be debated further.

"There should be some discussion. It's a significant enough issue that it shouldn't be slipped through," said Mark Tooley, director of UMAction, a program of the Institute for Religion and Democracy.

Concerns arose among clergy of the Baltimore-Washington conference, Tooley said, when they learned of the change in Phoenix's gender through a statement in a 25-page document recognizing his legal name change.

He said that according to traditional Jewish and Christian teaching, gender and sexual identity are fixed and given, despite popular belief that gender identities are fluid and subjective.

"Traditional Jewish and Christian teaching would link gender to physicality, a divine gift linked with your physicality," Tooley said.

United Methodists believe that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, Tooley said, but "sexual identity change has not really come up."

In 2002, the Rev. Richard A. Zamostny, the pastor of a Rockville congregation, returned from a leave of absence to undergo a sex change and reapplied to resume the post as Rebecca Steen. But the Methodists' Book of Discipline, a compilation of church legislation, does not mention transgendered or transsexual people nor prohibit them from serving as clergy.

A complaint had been made about the pastor right before the discussion of her reappointment. The pastor then resigned before the start of the hearing on the matter.

In explaining yesterday's decision to the conference, Schol said he looked at the Book of Discipline, talked with fellow bishops and other experts and "learned that there is nothing in our discipline that speaks to transgendered persons, learned that there is nothing in our policies or guidelines that speaks to transgendered persons."

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