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Wednesday, August 20,2014

Love the church, hate the dogma

Methodists’ rift over gay marriage could divide church

by Lawrence Cosentino

CORRECTION:  The online version of this story has been changed to correct Rob Cook's name and the name of Mt. Hope United Methodist Church. Both were incorrect in the print version of the story.

If the Rev. Jennifer Browne were gay, she wouldn't bother to warm a pew in her own church, University United Methodist in East Lansing.

"I'd be out the door in a second," she said. "Even as a straight person, I couldn't be part of a congregation that wasn't completely affirming of who LGBT persons are."

In the ever-shifting plate tectonics of religion and sexuality, one of the biggest fault lines runs right through the Methodist Church. In the 2012 edition of "Social Principles," the Methodist guidebook where the holy rubber Gospel meets the dirt road of daily life, homosexuality is still labeled "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Why has Browne stuck it out as the pastor for the last four years?

"I see myself as a member of the loyal opposition," she said. "My calling is to help this denomination grow up."

Despite a wave of progress this year with four states legalizing same-sex marriages, church acceptance varies widely.

The Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant group in the U.S., consider homosexuality a sin. While Roman Catholics also consider homosexuality a sin, Pope Francis has been making affirming statements about accepting gay priests and even considering unions.

He was made the Person of the Year in the gay magazine The Advocate for saying, “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”

Some, like the Mormons, welcome gays but discourage them from having sex and don't let them marry. Recently, the Anglican church (including its American kin, the Episcopalians) split over the issue, presaging what might happen to Methodists.

American Quakers, too, are divided. And on and on.

A few are open and affirming like the United Church of Christ.

Browne is gently nudging her flock toward the Reconciling Ministries, a national organization that rejects what the Social Principles say about gays. With her en  couragement, a Pride Group of church members has begun to organize.

Joining the Reconciling Ministries Network involves a long series of classes, Bible study sessions, guest speakers and meetings, ending in an up-or-down member vote.

"Changing us is like moving a barge," she said. "Slow going."

Changing Times

Browne has navigated more turbulent waters in her career. She grew up near gay-friendly Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the 1960s and went to seminary in Manhattan in the 1980s. When she got her first job, at First Congregational Church in Battle Creek, she thought she had landed on another planet.

"I had never experienced homophobia or racism the way I found it in Battle Creek in 1984," she said.

Browne left First Congregational to marry a Methodist minister, Greg Martin, and work with him as co-pastor in Reed City.

Since their recent divorce, Martin left the Methodist Church to become a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church, which is openly affirming to LGBT people. Browne stayed in the Methodist Church, hoping to influence it from the inside.

"He and I represent two ways of bringing about change," Browne said.

"I've preached that I disagree with Social Principles on this particular issue and I have not heard one word of disagreement," she said. "I thought I'd get some kickback and I got nothing but support."

Kickback

There was plenty of kickback when Williamston's United Methodist Church joined the Reconciling Ministries 17 years ago, the first Methodist church in Michigan to do so. "They lost a lot of members," the Rev. Julie Greyerbiehl, recalled. "It's a tender spot in the history of this church."

When a gay men’s choir sang to celebrate the reconciliation, angry protesters demonstrated outside.

"But the culture is changing and the church is changing," Greyerbiehl said.

Among the divided congregations in greater Lansing is Mt. Hope United Methodist Church, on Mt. Hope and Cedar in Lansing, led by a very conflicted pastor, Rob Cook.

Cook chose not to talk to City Pulse, explaining that he wanted to have this sensitive conversation with his congregation and "not in the newspaper."

But the issue has created a "tremendous amount of turmoil" in the Mt. Hope church, according to Bill Cote, a Lansing resident and longtime member of the church.

"Things are changing as we get younger people, but if you took a vote, most people would say they want to remain a nonaffirming church, " Cote said. "We welcome everybody, but if we believe it's not a sin to do [homosexual behavior], then we're not following the Bible."

Cote said he and his late wife agreed years ago that they would leave the church if it affirmed gays and permitted gay marriage, or, as he put it, he would conclude that "the church left us."

The divide is painful for all, congregants and leaders.

"All churches want to be seen as friendly," she said. "We take it a step further. We're not going to wait for you to come into our church and figure out whether or not you're going to be welcome." Rev. Nicolette Siragusa

"We're all feeling that," Greyerbiehl said. "It's not just the church at large dividing. Congregations divide. We still live the pain of lost friendships and severed relationships. To think that is going to happen across the church is saddening."

Every four years, debates on whether to change the “Social principles” on gays at the worldwide Methodist General Conference get hotter and hotter, and every four years, change is voted down. The last general conference, in 2012, a mild insert into the principles acknowledging that faithful Christians disagree on this matter was narrowly voted down.

"It's a stressful time for the church," Greyerbiehl said. "The church may split at our next general conference if we can't come to some kind of amicable middle ground."

The Methodist Church is among the most centralized of Protestant churches. Big decisions have always been made by the general conference only. To complicate matters, the church is growing fastest in Africa and Asia, where opposition to gay marriage is strong.

One way out of the impasse would be for the highly centralized church to break with tradition and allow subdivisions like the West Michigan Conference, or individual congregations, chart their own course on homosexuality.

"It would go against Methodist DNA," Browne said. "We are connectional, not congregational. But in my opinion, it's the only way to do this without splitting the church."

Despite the fractured environment, Browne says many gays and lesbian people stay in the Methodist church anyway.

"They might like the worship style or have family connections with the church," she said. "I don't know how they do it."

“You’re welcome, but … ”

When Rev. Nicolette Siragusa and her wife, Gina Calcagna, were dating 10 years ago, they tried a few of those doors, looking for a church they could attend together.

Siragusa is in her fourth year as pastor of Grand Ledge's First Congregational United Church of Christ, which is as "welcoming and affirming" to gays as they come. She'll perform the commitment ceremonies 1:30 p.m. Saturday on the state Capitol steps at Gay Pride.

Siragusa likes to sport rainbow-hued earrings in the shape of commas. It's a reference to one of her favorite pearls of wisdom: "Don't put a period where God put a comma. God is still speaking." (The phrase is attributed to comedian Gracie Allen.)

Siragusa doesn't want others to go through the same thing she and Calcagna went through several years ago.

In the early 2000s, they went to a picture-perfect church in Massachusetts. (She doesn't recall the denomination.) There was a barbecue for young people. As the reception wound down, Siragusa told the pastor's wife she was in a relationship with another woman.

"Of course you are both welcome," the pastor's wife told her, "but … ."

Siragusa was told they'd be welcome as friends, but not as a couple.

"In that 'but' hung all the sadness in the world," Siragusa said. "It was one of the saddest moments in my faith journey."

In her six years as pastor in Grand Ledge, Siragusa has kept the doors wide open and proactively reaches out to the gay community.

"All churches want to be seen as friendly," she said. "We take it a step further. We're not going to wait for you to come into our church and figure out whether or not you're going to be welcome."

For three years, Grand Ledge UCC has joined two sister churches, Pilgrim in Lansing and Edgewood in East Lansing, to co-host a hospitality tent at Gay Pride.

Difficult conversations and good leadership

This year is the first time Siragusa will preside over the commitment ceremony at Pride. About 15 couples signed up by the end of last week but 50 or more couples are expected to take part.

There will be a blessing and affirmation of the couples, with a keepsake certificate for participants.

Siragusa has performed six gay marriages already, two in Canada and four at the Ingham County Clerk's office March, 22, when Michigan's gay marriage ban was struck down by U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman. The order was stayed by the state's appeals court.

"We're looking forward to the day when marriage equality comes, and (oppositional statements) are not as important as they are now," she said.

She is closely watching the rift in the Methodist church and said it's "breaking her heart."

"They're having difficult conversations, but there's some good leadership who are trying to find a way for them to stay together as a denomination," she said.

Back in East Lansing, Browne is ready to shepherd her flock closer to the kind of affirmation Siragusa offers in Grand Ledge.

"Gay couples' love isn't any different than heterosexual couples," Browne said. "I can't imagine that God wouldn't put his blessing on that kind of love.”

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