By Rev. Dr. Sid Hall, III Senior Minister
I am writing to share my thoughts regarding the recommendation of Mary Ann Barclay (née Kaiser) by the Austin District Board of Ordained Ministry. Some of you may already have made a decision regarding Mary Ann’s official continuance on the track toward ordination based upon her honest declaration that she is a lesbian in a committed relationship. Perhaps some of you have yet to decide. I know that each of you is prayerfully weighing your influence and responsibility as a gatekeeper. Those of you who know of my support for marriage equality and gay ordination in the UMC may have some idea of what I want to say in this letter. I ask, however, that as a covenantal courtesy you read my reflections before making a final decision regarding Mary Ann, knowing that, like you, I take seriously my ministerial responsibilities in the United Methodist Church, as I have done since my first appointment 35 years ago.
I would like you to consider the difference between the candidacy process you and I experienced and the process that Mary Ann is experiencing. I entered my candidacy process in 1977, and was first appointed as a Student Local Pastor two years later, cradled every step of the way in support from my local church, my home pastor, and the full-time clergy charged with gatekeeping. I was challenged as I learned about Wesley’s theology, the use of the Quadrilateral, and atonement theology, and I worked hard to discern whether I was called to be set apart for ordained ministry. Through seminary, deacon’s orders, and ordination as an elder, there was never discussion of my sexual orientation. It was never discussed because I am heterosexual, which happens to be a sexual orientation I did not choose. For that reason alone, my ordination was always about my readiness for ministry and the validation of the call that came when I was 14 at a Methodist Chautauqua in Northern Michigan.
The year I was ordained as an elder also happened to be Gene Leggett’s last year to kneel with a bandana over his mouth at the altar at Travis Park United Methodist Church in San Antonio during the ordination service of the Southwest Texas Conference of the UMC. He died the next year from complications related to AIDS. I remember trying to ignore him and concentrate on the mystery of my call. My grandmother told me when I was a little boy that I would be a Methodist minister when I grew up. She was in her 80s when I was ordained an elder and was present at the ordination. She came up to me, kissed me, and said “This is the happiest day of my life.” I ignored Gene, but the memory of Gene didn’t ignore me. His imprint has been permanently etched in my conscience. In my daily routine of hospital visits, sitting by parishioners while they navigated loss, and preaching a Wesleyan theology of combining “personal holiness” with “social holiness,” my mind’s eye kept seeing Gene kneeling at the altar. When I finally got up the courage to begin advocating for gay inclusion a few years later during Annual Conference, I was instructed by well-meaning mentors to tread lightly lest I stir up the “Gene Leggett hornet’s nest.” I was scared. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not an activist by nature but am a placater haunted by the Golden Rule. My first love in ministry has always been pastoral care, and people like Gene keep showing up in my conscience, asking me to care more.
I want to reiterate an important point: I did not choose to be heterosexual. That was my sexual orientation long before I could claim to be “practicing” or even “self-avowed”, yet this orientation has granted me a particular kind of privilege regarding my ministry in the UMC: I am judged by my competency for ministry, not by my sexuality. Mary Ann and I both value monogamy, integrity, and responsibility in our married relationships. Do we diminish the value of ordination by saying that these values are secondary to the gender of the person to whom we are attracted? If a person is otherwise qualified for ministry, are we saying that none of these things really matter so much as to whom we commit in marital fidelity? Mary Ann’s professors, fellow seminary students, and her district committee believe she is exceptional in her ministerial skills and qualities. Is our theological statement that we recognize that a person may be genuinely called by God into ministry, but not be suitable solely because she commits to marriage with someone of the same gender?
My privileged sexual orientation opens many doors in our society, including the door to ordination in the United Methodist Church, but it has nothing to do with my call to ministry or even my lifestyle choices such as fidelity and monogamy. I would ask whether your orientation is part of your call into ministry, and what role it plays in your ability to do effective ministry. Our sexuality, of course, is part of God’s good gift to us as humans, but howdoes it determine our effectiveness as clergy?
The UMC is in crisis because we are once again selectively applying the Quadrilateral for interpretation. The Methodist Episcopal Church broke apart in the 1840s over the issue of slavery and didn’t come back together until 1939. Women were not ordained in the UMC until the 1950s. The arguments used for slavery and against women’s ordination were rooted in a culture of privilege and power, and the scriptures were used as proof-texting to support this systemic oppression. Of course, our understanding of race and slavery, and the role of women in the church, has changed; the scriptures have not. We are now quite adept at employing the Quadrilateral as we speak of racial and gender inclusion in the UMC, using tradition, reason, and experience as we interpret and understand problematic passages in the Bible related to race and women.
Culturally and ecclesially, we are at a similar crossroads today regarding our Christian lesbian sisters and gay brothers. We cling to a non-Wesleyan treatment of scripture to uphold our straight privilege while we embrace the Quadrilateral regarding ethnic minorities and women. We offer services of apology to women and American Indians at our General and Annual Conferences, unaware that we repeat the same pattern of oppression with lesbians and gays. Black United Methodists recall that Richard Allen, ordained by Francis Asbury, was required to sit in the balcony at Methodist conferences, and because he never found a place at the table in our denomination, he established the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Women in the United Methodist Church know that in 1880, Anna Howard Shaw was denied ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church and left when she was embraced for her gifts and ordained in the Methodist Protestant Church. Both left the denomination that had baptized them and had nurtured their call to ordained ministry.
The Southwest Texas Conference has an opportunity to provide Mary Ann Barclay a place at the table of ordained ministry. Where Gene Leggett was forced to surrender his credentials 43 years ago, we can forgo the comfort of our straight privilege and honor a candidate’s gifts for ministry instead of denying her based upon sexual orientation. We are all enriched when every child of God is honored and celebrated for using their gifts to build the vitality and integrity of Christ’s realm on earth.
I ask you again: How does your sexual orientation shape your daily pastoral duties? How did it inform your original call by God into ministry, to your commitment to Wesley’s Works, to your understanding of atonement, to your ability to articulate the means of grace? We cannot, and would not, be separated from our sexuality, nor should we be. But should our orientation qualify us, or disqualify us, from ministry?
We have many closeted lesbian and gay clergy in the Southwest Texas Conference. This fact is not a secret. If they were to become public about their orientation, and be allowed to continue as United Methodist clergy, would their ministry change? These are important questions I invite you to ask yourselves and each other as you discern the pastoral gifts of Mary Ann Barclay.
Yours in ministry,
April 23, 2014