A number of years ago, the Council of Bishops issued a challenge called the Four Areas of Focus. One of the key pieces was the development of leadership and particularly the nurturing of young leaders in our churches. And so it’s a great irony to me that a clergy candidate like Mary Ann Barclay comes along—young, exceptionally bright, committed to Christ, called by God, passionate about ministry—and the response of our church is to close the gate and bar her from ordination in the church she loves and calls home.
I’ve had the opportunity to interview numerous candidates for ministry in our conference, both as a pastor and as a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry, and I can’t think of a single one that has more promise for ministry than Mary Ann. Her work as Director of Youth Ministries has taken a program that was on life support and moved it to vitality and bearing fruit. Her work in justice and mission last year earned our church a city council award for creating temporary housing for homeless women who were facing unsafe and even violent conditions on the street. Mary Ann frequently contributes to the creation of liturgy and her participation in leading worship is dynamic and engaging. Her written work is all over the web; one of her most impressive pieces was a reflection last year on the legacy of Nelson Mandela. And her calling is clear and of God.
Mary Ann is not a “publicity stunt” as one commentator has dubbed her. She is the real deal. As many members of my congregation like to say, “This is exactly the kind of person that we need in ministry in the United Methodist Church.” Without her gifts in our church, I know that we will be diminished and our witness to the world will be dimmer.
So why are we even talking about this? The answer is that 42 years ago, we added language to our Book of Discipline that singles out one group of people and states that they are uncategorically unacceptable for ordained ministry unless they’re willing to become celibate. In the minds of some, there might have been justification for these policies 42 years ago; however, by now it should be abundantly clear that there is no good reason for denying LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, and queer) persons a clear path to ordination.
All of the reasons for discrimination against LGBTQ persons have fallen like a house of cards over the past couple of decades. James Brownson, Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, carefully re-considers his own position and the scriptural evidence related to same sex relationships in his magisterial work, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Brownson painstakingly explores what he calls the moral logic of scripture, those deep principles by which we determine how to apply scripture to fresh experiences in the church. He concludes that “there are no forms of moral logic underpinning these passages that clearly and unequivocally forbid all contemporary forms of committed same-sex relationships.” (277) Given that the biblical writers never address same-sex intimate relationships that are about lifelong bonds of care and concern, it seems clear that the church must reconsider its teachings.
Even our own Book of Discipline is clearly of a divided mind. At the same time that it enforces discrimination against same sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian persons, it holds up the broader principle of inclusion. In Section VI of “The Mission and Ministry of the Church,” the Book of Discipline states: “Inclusiveness means openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church, the community, and the world; therefore, inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination.” (para. 140)
At some point, The United Methodist Church will come to its senses, realize that the emperor has no clothes and will remove these discriminatory policies, just as it finally removed language that barred women from ordained ministry almost 60 years ago. My question is: why wait? Why not move forward now? If the kingdom of God is truly in the future, constantly moving toward us, bringing justice and equality and compassion into every situation, why not embrace it now as reality?
Why not consider Mary Ann, as we consider all other candidates for ministry? Is she called to ordained ministry in the UMC? Does she have gifts and graces for ministry? Does she have promise of usefulness in the church that has been affirmed by the community of faith? (BOD, para. 301)
May God’s spirit breathe new life into our church that we might have the courage to embrace the future that is already on the way!