Nearly 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Germany, United Methodist Church pastors in Lansing, Michigan used the same symbolic move with the hopes of starting a reformation of their own.
More than 50 activists, many of them clergy, assembled outside the office of the West Michigan Conference's Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey on Tuesday. They read a pledge asking the UMC to "Stop The Harm" done by church leaders to LGBT people, then taped the pledges to the office's front door.
"We hereby declare that we DO NOT accept what is directly contradictory to the teachings of Jesus and Methodist's founder John Wesley," the pledge states.
The LGBT advocates were protesting on behalf of Rev. Benjamin Hutchison, a gay African Methodist Episcopal pastor who was spiritual leader of the Cassopolis United Methodist Church. His congregation had known that he was gay and was supportive of him, Hutchison told WSBT 22.
But while the UMC welcomes LGBT members, the denomination's laws prohibits gay clergy from serving at UMC churches. Pastors are also not allowed to officiate at same-sex weddings. Only the General Conference, the UMC's top lawmaking body, has the ability to change these rules.
When the higher-ups in the UMC questioned him, Hutchison refused to deny his love for his partner. He said he was forced to resign from his post earlier this month -- even though he helped quadruple the church's weekly attendance during his nearly three years at the helm.
“It wasn’t only my place of employment; it was the love of my life," Hutchison told WSBT 22 about his former church.
On July 17, he was legally married to his partner outside Cass County Courthouse, with at least nine UMC pastors in attendance. According to Rev. Michael Tupper of Parchment United Methodist Church, who signed Hutchison's marriage license, those nine pastors are facing discipline from the UMC for attending and participating in the wedding.
“We’re trying to do our part to bring light to this injustice, and encouraging our denomination to see what they are doing to gay people,” he told United Methodist News, the denomination's news service.
Kiesey, the local bishop, plans to meet with the nine Michigan clergy members on August 31.
“I grieve for this painful place in which we currently find ourselves in The United Methodist Church,” Kiesey said in a statement. “As we have done in the past, I trust that with God’s help, we will find our way through these difficult times. I ask for your prayers for people on all sides of these issues.”
Last year, Tupper officiated at his daughter's same-sex wedding. Although a complaint was filed against him, he didn't face a penalty. In 2013, another UMC pastor, Rev. Frank Schaefer was defrocked of his clergy credentials after officiating at his gay son's wedding. He was officially reinstated in October 2014.
Schaefer told HuffPost that he believes it would be "detrimental" for the UMC to put the nine pastors through a same-gender marriage trial -- especially since marriage equality is now the law of the land.
He added that he's proud of his colleagues in Michigan for taking a stand.
"The message it communicates to all of us is: progressive Christians and ministers will no longer be intimidated by unjust religious laws or ecclesiastical discipline," Schaefer told HuffPost in an email. "We will follow the biblical mandate of love and justice, even in the face of consequences!"
The West Michigan chapter of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a Methodist LGBT advocacy group, helped to plan Tuesday's protest. The organization's executive director, Matt Berryman said that his team is "exhausted" by the church's "fear-based institutional priorities."
We are exhausted by the church’s inability to turn its gaze toward a vision of inclusion and justice when Christ Jesus drew the circle wide. We are exhausted by church leaders whose fidelity to institutional covenants and rules trump their own personal commitments to Christ and to the gospel. We are exhausted by living in a world where such a vision is so desperately needed. . . Enough is enough. Stop the Harm.
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