Transgender man allowed to remain as church pastor

October 31, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

The highest judicial body of the United Methodist Church announced yesterday that a transgender man can remain pastor of a congregation in Charles Village.

The ruling by the Judicial Council affirms last spring's decision by Bishop John R. Schol to reappoint the Rev. Drew Phoenix -- formerly the Rev. Ann Gordon -- to St. John's United Methodist Church.

Schol's action had been appealed to the Judicial Council by several local clergy in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, who have raised questions about the proper role of transgender people within the church.

Yesterday's ruling concluded that "a clergyperson's good standing cannot be terminated without administrative or judicial action having occurred and all fair process being accorded."

The Methodists' Book of Discipline bars noncelibate gays and lesbians from serving as clergy but does not include any commentary about transgender people. In addition, yesterday's decision by the nine-member council, made up of laypeople and clergy, did not specifically address "whether gender change is a chargeable offense or violates minimum standards" of United Methodism.

The Judicial Council "ruled that the Baltimore-Washington Conference is operating within the laws of the church," Schol said. "I'm pleased that the conference continues to abide by the discipline."

Phoenix, who learned of the decision early yesterday morning, said he was elated.

"To me, it's a historic day in the life of our denomination, and I think the Judicial Council decision is a very important first step in opening the doors of our churches to the transgender community," he said.

When representatives from the entire denomination gather in April for its General Conference, an international legislative session held every four years, Phoenix said he is confident that the body "will open the doors further to gay men and lesbian women."

Many groups, secular and religious, are struggling with how institutions ought to recognize and accommodate transgender people -- people who identify as a gender different than what was assigned to them at birth.

The Rev. Kevin M. Baker, who had raised questions about Phoenix's name change when it was announced at the Baltimore-Washington's annual meeting in May, said he wasn't surprised by the Judicial Council's decision.

However, "it seems to me that we need more discussion on this issue," said Baker, pastor of Oakdale Emory United Methodist Church in Olney. "We need a chance to talk about the implications of it."

He said he wishes that the Judicial Council had called for more examination of theological issues raised by transgender people. For example, it's unclear to Baker whether transgender clergy could be married. United Methodism does not perform marriages of gays or lesbians and requires unmarried clergy to remain celibate.

"This just is, in my opinion, another chink in a long fence of issues that we're not dealing well with in the church," such as pornography and divorce, he said.

Susan Laurie of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which seeks expanded rights for gay, lesbian and bisexual Methodists, said her group supports the decision.

"Reverend Phoenix has met the standards of his ordination as a United Methodist clergyperson," Laurie said. "In affirming Bishop Schol's decision, the council has simply joined in recognizing that -- and has refused to create a double standard."

Others said they were relieved that the Judicial Council did not rewrite legislation in its decision. The Rev. Robert Renfroe, president of the Confessing Movement of the United Methodist Church, said the ruling appears limited and "didn't state whether or not being transgendered was some kind of offense."

The Confessing Movement, which Renfroe described as supporting a traditionalist view, endorses the denomination's current position on homosexuality.

"Our desire has always been that the people who get elected be fair to the will of the church," Renfroe said. "We don't want folks -- conservative or liberal -- trying to create law."

At St. John's yesterday, church member Carrie Frias said she was thrilled for her pastor but even more proud of the impact the council's decision could have for people struggling with a gender-identity question of their own or who have grown disenfranchised from the church.

"For me, it's a much broader issue that's beyond Drew and beyond the church," said the Lauraville resident. Within the entire denomination, "for now, there hasn't been a statement that you're not welcome here."

Schol -- who oversees nearly 700 congregations in Maryland and Washington, as well as in Bermuda and parts of West Virginia -- has said he reappointed Phoenix, who has served at St. John's since 2002, because he has been an effective leader.

Under Phoenix, Sunday church attendance has grown from about a dozen people to more than 50 members of varied racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Despite the uncertainty over Phoenix's role, the church has continued to expand ministries, such as sister-city partnerships in Nicaragua and Kenya and sponsorship of two Baltimore youth arts groups. Yesterday, Phoenix was helping to prepare the church's emergency shelter for its opening Sunday.

"It's 110 percent that he's continued to give," Frias said.

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