AN APPEAL FOR DEEPER DISCERNMENT ……….. An Essay in Support of the Candidacy of Mary Ann Barclay

Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 5.00.06 PMby Rev. Monte Marshall, Senior Pastor
Travis Park United Methodist Church, San Antonio, TX
Southwest Texas Annual Conference

Mary Ann Barclay is a candidate for ordination as a deacon in The United Methodist Church.  Her candidacy, however, is at risk because of opposition within the church to her sexual orientation.  In fact, Mary Ann’s name was recently removed from the candidacy list at the recommendation of the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Southwest Texas Conference and with the support of a narrow majority of the clergy members of the conference.  These actions took place despite a favorable recommendation from Mary Ann’s District Board of Ordained Ministry and without an interview of the candidate by the conference Board.

After this matter was reviewed by appropriate church authorities to ensure that the procedures outlined in The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline were followed, Mary Ann’s name was reinstated to the candidacy list.  It is anticipated that she will be interviewed by the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry before further decisions are made about her candidacy.

In the next round of decision making, Mary Ann could be thwarted in her pursuit of ordination in The United Methodist Church if those charged with the important task of “gate-keeping” in the ordination process feel bound either by certain provisions of the church’s Book of Discipline, or by particular interpretations of scripture that are used to deny homosexual persons full participation in the life and ministry of the church, or both.

The language about homosexuality in the Book of Discipline is an undeniable obstacle to Mary Ann’s candidacy.  While the Discipline acknowledges the sacred worth and civil rights of homosexual persons, it also declares that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.  Furthermore, the Discipline establishes this rule:  self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. 

The particular biblical interpretations that motivate the opposition to Mary Ann’s candidacy focus on texts such as Leviticus 18:22, and Romans 1:26-27.  Some interpreters insist that these and similar texts indicate God’s opposition to homosexuality.  Other interpreters raise exegetical and interpretive questions about texts like these, and point to other aspects of the biblical witness that are more inclusive.  The debate continues, but those who see the Bible as condemning of homosexuality influence significant segments of the church and could prevail in derailing Mary Ann’s candidacy simply because of her sexual orientation.

My deeply held concern is that, if strict adherence to denominational rules and reliance on biblical interpretations that are adverse to homosexuality are at the forefront in the consideration of Mary Ann Barclay’s candidacy for ordained ministry in The United Methodist Church, a more basic and fundamental question will be missed:  How is God’s Spirit at work in Mary Ann Barclay’s life?

In my estimation, this is the most important question to be asked and answered, not for Mary Ann alone, but for every person desiring to pursue ordained ministry in our church, regardless of sexual orientation.  The discernment resulting from this deeper level of inquiry might even prove sufficient to overrule the Book of Discipline and any particular biblical interpretations that might otherwise work against Mary Ann’s candidacy.

Admittedly, overruling these two sources of authority within the church would be an extraordinarily difficult step to take, but it would not be an unprecedented step even in biblical terms.  Consider the story found in Acts 10.  Peter is in Joppa.  At noontime he goes up on a rooftop to pray.  He falls into a trance and sees a vision that shakes his religious sensibilities to the core.  Heaven opens up.  A sheet comes down.  On the sheet are various kinds of animals declared unclean and not to be eaten by commonly accepted biblical interpretations and the rules established by his religious tradition.

Peter hears a voice saying, Get up, Peter; kill and eat.[1]  Peter refuses saying, I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.  So far the rules and traditions are holding.

But then the voice says, What God has made clean, you must not call profane.  The vision is repeated three times.  Even so, Peter is still greatly puzzled.

Suddenly, three men sent in response to the Spirit by a Gentile centurion from Caesarea named Cornelius, appear at the house.  The Spirit says to Peter, Go with them.  It is then that Peter yields.  The rules and traditions give way as Peter crosses a boundary.  He invites the unclean Gentile men into his home for the night.

The next day, the three lead Peter and other believers from Joppa to Caesarea.  They arrive at Cornelius’ home and once again break the rules by entering the home of a Gentile.  Peter tells Cornelius and a gathered company of Cornelius’ Gentile friends and family members that God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean….I truly understand that God shows no partiality.

While Peter is still speaking, the unexpected happens.  The gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the Gentiles listening to Peter.  The circumcised believers with Peter are astounded.  Peter says:  Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?  Peter orders them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Peter next goes to Jerusalem (see Acts 11).  He appears before the leadership of the church.  He responds to criticisms of his actions leveled against him by church leaders.  Peter tells them:  If then God gave them [the Gentiles] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?  His critics were silenced.  They then praised God.   

In this story, strict adherence to religious rules and accepted interpretations of scripture are not the decisive considerations in Peter’s transformation or in the transformation of the church.  Instead, the priority is openness to the work of God’s Spirit even in the lives of those deemed by some as profane or unclean.

Given this story, what is the justification for using Mary Ann Barclay’s sexual orientation as the sole criterion for discontinuing her candidacy?  If this happened, would it not be comparable to treating her as a person deemed profane or unclean and therefore unfit for ordination?  Isn’t a deeper discernment required that asks the more basic and fundamental question:  How is God’s Spirit at work in Mary Ann Barclay’s life?

Practicing this deeper discernment has transformed my own view of homosexual persons.  I grew up in a culture, in a church, and in a family that taught me to treat homosexual persons as unclean.  I was exposed to the biblical interpretations used to condemn homosexuality.  I used epithets to speak of homosexual persons.  I was uncomfortable around persons suspected of homosexuality for fear that the mere association would cause others to be suspicious of my own sexuality.  And I assumed that a homosexual person would automatically be disqualified from ordained ministry in The United Methodist Church.  It grieves me to admit it, but this sort of bigotry was part of my life.

But then I met an amazing young woman named Jenny.  Jenny and I were in seminary together.  It was a United Methodist seminary, but Jenny wasn’t a United Methodist.  She belonged to a Metropolitan Community Church and was already serving professionally in a congregation.

I learned early on that Jenny was a lesbian.  It was no secret.  At first, I judged Jenny on the basis of my prejudices.  But then, during an unforgettable chapel service, the barriers began to come down.  I heard Jenny deliver one of the most powerful and moving sermons I have ever heard.  She preached on the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s gospel.  I was amazed at how artfully Jenny connected the biblical story to her own story.

As I got to know Jenny, I discovered that she was a loving and caring pastor.  And as I recall, she graduated from seminary summa cum laude, at the top of her class.  When I came to know Jenny as a person, I saw in her life what Peter saw in Cornelius’ life—God’s Spirit powerfully at work.

I then confronted the questions that Peter confronted:   Was I going to call profane what God had made clean?  Was I going to stand in God’s way?  I responded as Peter responded, and my perspective was transformed.

From what I know of Mary Ann Barclay, God’s Spirit has clearly been at work in her life.  While she was in college, Mary Ann worked for the Wesley Foundation and volunteered to serve the youth of her local church.  Following college, she spent a year living in southeast Nigeria to work on issues of health in local communities.  Since returning to the United States, she has worked as a hospital chaplain and received a Master of Divinity degree from seminary.  She currently serves as a lay person on the staff of University United Methodist Church in Austin, TX with the title Youth Director and Mission and Justice Associate.[2]

Along the way, Mary Ann discerned a calling from God to the ministry of an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church.  The people who have known her best in the congregations she has served—the people who have worked side-by-side with her in mission and ministry, worshipped with her, shared life together with her—have also examined her and  discerned the Spirit’s work in her life.  They have affirmed her calling.  Without their discernment and affirmation, Mary Ann would not have made it this far in the candidacy process.  Frankly, as far as I can tell, Mary Ann Barclay is every bit as qualified to be ordained in The United Methodist Church as I was when I was ordained an elder in 1990—and perhaps even more so!

But for Mary Ann’s candidacy to move forward, a deeper discernment is required.  After his rooftop vision in Joppa and his encounter with Cornelius and the other Gentiles in Caesarea, Peter asked the question:  Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?  The answer was no.

Thankfully, no one is questioning the legitimacy of Mary Ann’s baptism.  But Peter’s question deserves to be reframed and asked again in the context of Mary Ann Barclay’s candidacy for ordained ministry:  Can anyone withhold ordination from a person who has received the Holy Spirit just as we have?  We await an answer.

In the meantime, I am praying for those “gate-keepers” in the ordination process who will decide the status of Mary Ann Barclay’s candidacy.  I also appeal for a deeper discernment that moves us beyond strict adherence to denominational rules and reliance on biblical interpretations adverse to homosexuality, to the more basic and fundamental question:  How is God’s Spirit at work in Mary Ann Barclay’s life?

[1] All scripture quotations are from the NRSV translation.

[2] “Lay Staff | University United Methodist Church.” Lay Staff | University United Methodist Church. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Jan. 2014.


4 thoughts on “AN APPEAL FOR DEEPER DISCERNMENT ……….. An Essay in Support of the Candidacy of Mary Ann Barclay

  1. Very well written Rev Marshall. My prayers and support are with Mary Ann Barclay. I hope the leaders of my denomination are wise and compassionate in their decision making. It takes many kinds of shepherds to lead because there is such a wide variety if sheep. May the veil of fear be lifted from this process and God’s loving healing spirit shine through in the end.

  2. Excellent article. I also agree that your criteria is the main thing that should be considered for candidates for ordination. I also agree with your report of your earlier experiences. I used to tell my students that it is easy to hate people you do not know and that is what causes prejudice. Once you know people who are different from you, they become people with dreams and problems, as you are, and they cease to be different. Keep up the good work.

  3. Well said, Monte. There have been times that the “gate-keepers” used other personal, subjective criteria to judge in the ordination process…things like personal appearance, whether they agreed with candidate’s basic theological position, what seminary they attended or even if they just liked the candidate. While those are negative examples , your example, Monte, is a positive constructive one. Those who have the ears to hear, let them hear.

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