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United Methodist churches perform same-sex weddings with one foot in the closet

September 30, 2010 - 10:30 AM
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A Methodist lesbian couple holds a rare public wedding, in protest of church doctrine (Photo: Associated Press)

On Sunday, D.C.'s Foundry United Methodist Church announced that it would break with Methodist church doctrine and begin performing same-sex marriages. Foundry's Dupont digs are now open for gay weddings under the the blessing of Foundry Senior Minister Dean Snyder. Don't be surprised if you don't hear a word about any of them.

The day following Foundry's pronouncement, John R. Schol, Bishop of the United Methodist Church's Baltimore-Washington Conference, announced his intentions to pursue action against any member of the Foundry clergy who actually performs a same-sex wedding. Seven months ago, Georgetown's Dumbarton United Methodist Church received a similar warning from Schol. Dumbarton was the first local Methodist church to publicly open its doors to gay weddings when the District legalized them last March. “Now, with marriage equality in the District of Columbia, our congregation will give its full support and blessing to those who have been excluded from this sacred rite,” Dumbarton pastor Rev. Mary Kay Totty wrote at the time. “We will honor and celebrate the wedding of any couple, licensed in D.C., who seek to commit their lives to one another in marriage."

But seven months after the blessing, Totty would only discuss Dumbarton same-sex marriages in the vaguest of terms. “Our commitment to marriage equality is available on our website,” Totty told me. "I will say that I believe that treating all people equally is at the core of my ministry." But Totty wouldn’t confirm that any same-sex wedding had actually been performed in her church in the 7 months since legalization. “Weddings are private, sacred events, and our policy is not to answer questions from the media about any weddings,” Totty said. When asked if the church has received any push-back from the bishop on this issue, Totty would say only that “we certainly understand and respect our bishop.”

And Bishop Schol can only pursue charges against Dumbarton for performing same-sex weddings if he actually hears about one. Rev. Troy Plummer, Executive Director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, is more forthcoming about the risks of Methodist churches taking up the same-sex marriage mantle."Our church policies don’t allow for marriages by clergy or in United Methodist Churches for gay couples. Clergy who do so could lose their credentials," Plummer says. "The church has a history of prosecuting clergy for doing this openly. In the past we’ve seen clergy defrocked." (The Baltimore Washington Conference wouldn't comment beyond Schol's letter to Foundry; phone calls to Foundry were not returned).

But Methodist pastors "also have a history of trying to be good pastors to their congregants," Plummer says, and some Methodist ministries have a long history of hosting same-sex weddings under the radar. "Some people have been doing this for quite a long time, just not publicly," Plummer says. "They would hold weddings in a home, in a park, sometimes in the church. At first, these weddings were not legal . . . But in each state that has passed marriage equality, some congregations are now doing this more openly."

But not too openly. In order for the Methodist church to bring charges against a pastor, "you have to be charged for a specific act at a specific time," Plummer says. "So these churches will open their worship spaces and announce that they’re willing to do these services, but they aren’t holding press releases when these services happen.”

Even without the public announcement, churches could still get nabbed for the practice. "At any moment in time, any person who is a United Methodist could file charges against these clergy, but they need a time and a place and they need to be a witnesses to the event,"  Plummer says. "Any disgruntled person at any wedding could file these charges."

To Plummer, an open acknowledgment of Methodist gay weddings—even a winking one—is worth the risk. "We have this thing called 'the closet,' and it doesn’t really help gay people," Plummer says. "It doesn’t allow them to be open about who they are. And when a church performs these marriages in the closet, the same is true. . . . Doing this publicly gives people hope—not just in D.C. but around the country."

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