Legal ruling sought on church post

Methodists seek to address issue of transgender clergy

May 26, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Local United Methodist clergy are asking for a judicial opinion from the denomination's highest legal authority on Bishop John R. Schol's decision to reappoint a transgender pastor to a Charles Village congregation.

"I think this is an issue we have to talk about as a church, and we have to decide what we think," said the Rev. Kevin M. Baker, senior pastor of Oakdale Emory United Methodist Church in Olney.

The bishop announced his decision to continue the appointment of the Rev. Drew Phoenix, pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church in Charles Village on Thursday at the annual meeting of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. Clergy appointments are routinely renewed at the annual conference.

Phoenix, 48, has been an effective minister at St. John's for nearly five years, Schol said. Though the church bars noncelibate gay clergy and does not support gay unions, the Methodists' Book of Discipline, which lists the religion's rules, is silent on the role of transgender clergy.

UMAction, a conservative Methodist organization, has called for the General Conference, an international Methodist body that meets next year, to develop legislation to address this issue.

"I think instinctively most church people would say there are some theological problems with gender change, but they don't know how to articulate the arguments, and expect the church to offer a teaching on the subject," said UMAction director Mark Tooley.

"The issue of gender identity is not directly about sexual practice and really requires some different theological arguments," he said.

Clergy of the conference - which includes nearly 700 churches in Washington, Central and Eastern Maryland, and parts of West Virginia - first learned about Phoenix's gender transition last week in a 25-page document that stated his legal name change from Ann Gordon.

During the closed-door discussion on the issue Thursday afternoon, there were two calls for decisions of law, said Wayne DeHart, the Baltimore-Washington Conference's director of human resources.

The questions being asked by the pastors involve a clarification about whether transgendered people are eligible for appointment as pastors, as well as a technical issue of how a name change based on gender identity should be reported, DeHart said.

Under church procedure, Schol would issue a decision within a month, which would be reviewed by the Judicial Council, the Methodist equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court. Decisions of the council, which next meets in October, are final, according to the United Methodists' Web site.

"The bishop has strictly followed church law and will continue to do so, as he understands it," DeHart said. "I guess that's what the essence of these two requests are - whether his understanding of church law will be upheld or overruled."

Baker said this was the second time within five years that this issue has arisen in the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

The Rev. Richard A. Zamostny took a leave of absence for a sex change and reapplied as Rebecca Steen to resume a post as pastor of a Methodist congregation in Rockville, according to news reports. But she later withdrew her application at the start of a hearing to review a complaint made prior to the debate about her sex change.

Baker wondered whether a distinction should be made for people who were born with ambiguous physical characteristics. He also thought there is a difference in the expectations for those who are members of the church and those serving as a leader.

"It's not an easy theological answer. We need to have some discussion and come to some conclusion so we as a church can make a stand and have some guidance for both pastors and churches," he said.

Part of the problem relates to improved science that allows such surgeries to be successful.

"Medical technology has gotten ahead of us," Baker said. The church needs to proactively decide, from a theological foundation, "how to extend the grace of Jesus to all people, including transgendered people," Baker said.

Phoenix told the conference Thursday that he hopes to prompt discussion and education about gender identity issues.

"My intention is that by sharing my story, my relationship with God and my spiritual journey, we will become educated about the complexity of gender and complexity of gender identity and open ourselves to those in our congregations and in our communities who identify as transgender," he said.

Now, after surgery and hormone therapy, Phoenix said he is comfortable with himself.

"I find myself coming home to the child God created me to be," the pastor said. "I'm happy, I'm whole, and I'm peaceful, and I find myself even more effective as a pastor."

The 50-member congregation, described on its Web site as "worshipping a radically inclusive God," is a "Reconciling" church, part of a United Methodist movement supporting the inclusion of all people in the church, regardless of sexual or gender identity.

Under church law, Schol could not deny Phoenix a position, said Thomas E. Frank, director of Methodist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology.

"He wouldn't have any grounds for doing it," the scholar said in a phone interview yesterday.

Schol told the conference Thursday that St. John's asked that Phoenix return.

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