Imagine my excitement when, in a press release sent me a few days before it went public, I ogled these words:
Methodist Group to Perform Gay Weddings
In unprecedented move, network of 900+ bypasses denomination's ban to reach out directly to LGBT peopleA group of over 900 United Methodists in New York and Connecticut today announced their intention to make weddings available to all people, gay and straight, in spite of their denomination's ban on gay marriage. The announcement marks the kick-off of a project called We do! Methodists Living Marriage Equality. In an unprecedented move in any major religious denomination, We do! is not only bypassing the formal rules of the church, but also reaching out directly to LGBT groups in New York and Connecticut to let them know about the new network. This morning the group published a list of all its members: clergy members who will perform weddings for gay couples, lay members of the denomination who support them, and congregations who have adopted policies to formally make weddings available to all couples. (Read the entire press release here.)
"Whoa!" I thought. "That is a lot of Methodists! This is such a huge story! I should totally snag an interview with Rev. Sara Lamar-Sterling, the woman quoted in this press release!"
My heart quickened at the thought of interviewing this renegade Christian leader, this bold iconoclast, this trailblazing visionary who was willing to defy authority, buck convention, cleave to God's truth and let the chips fall where they may. Was there any way TIME magazine wouldn't pick up this story? (They're still publishing TIME, right?)
So I set up the interview. (That's right. That's how I Rolodex.)
I like to begin my interviews with controversial mavericks by asking an eye-opening zinger of a question that, like a speeding harpoon of inquiry, plunges straight into the very heart of the issue at hand.
"Are you bummed" I began with Rev. Lamar-Sterling, "about having to go to hell forever?"
She laughed. "Gosh, I hope that doesn't happen. But I'm not worried about it. Hell is a creative idea dreamed up by Dante and friends."
Oh. Well. OK. Not quite the paradigm-buster I was after, but whatever.
She definitely seemed nice.
"Are you scared you might lose your job for doing this?" I asked with edgy provocativeness. I pictured Rev. Lamar-Sterlingf out on mean streets of New Haven, Conn., in her raggedy clerical robes, dejectedly holding out a shiny gold collection plate to passersby.
"No, not really," she said cheerily. "There are many steps that would have to happen in order for any of us to actually lose our positions within the church."
"But it could happen, right?" I asked with an air of conspiratorial subterfuge that I hoped she'd find contagious.
"It's in the realm of possibilities, yes. But it's not anything I'm afraid of. In any account, the much bigger picture, for we who have come out in favor of marriage equality, is the fact that gay and lesbian people are excluded and discriminated against every single day of their lives. That's what really matters here. They're the ones really bearing a risk out in the world. Compared to theirs, our daily risk is much smaller."
Oh. What a totally friendly and good-natured point.
"Have you been having to put all this together in secret?" I asked, because who isn't intrigued by a sneaky pastor?
"No, not in secret," said Rev. Lamar-Sterling disappointingly. "We've been openly working on this for years. And we have our website, which is our main communication tool. We've always been very open about talking about this, and sharing our purposes and goals, and collecting signatures and so on. It's all been very aboveboard. A great many people within the Methodist church believe in marriage equality, and so we've just been honored to facilitate and advance that conversation. And through initiatives like 'We do!' we look forward to doing a great deal more of this in the future."
"How did your church take this radical move on your part?" I asked her. I pictured the congregants of First and Summerfield United Methodist Church of New Haven up on their feet, screaming, railing, gnashing their teeth, pulling their hair, threateningly brandishing rolled-up church bulletins. Lighting Frankenstein villager torches.
"They love it," she said. "They're a reconciling congregation, so they've been very excited about the whole project. In fact, I actually had to slow them down a bit. I had to explain to them how this is a process, how we needed to work within the larger body of the New York Annual Conference, to bring everyone along at the same time. But they've been absolutely supportive of this every step of the way."
I was starting to feel TIME waving good-bye to me.
"You're straight, right?" I asked lamely.
"Yes, I am. And married."
"I don't suppose you're a transvestite from Transylvania," I almost asked before jamming my fist in my mouth. Instead, I asked her about where "We do!" fits in with the larger body of all Methodists. Rev. Lamar-Sterling then explained to me how there are different "conferences," or regions, of Methodists across the country, and how each, reflecting the sensibilities of its citizens, is necessarily dealing with the issue of marriage equality in its own way, and at its own speed.
"The same sort of thing we're doing here in the NYAC is currently going on in 11 other Methodiest conferences," she said. "The difference is that while their efforts are geared toward clergy only, 'We do!' involves clergy, laity and congregations. That's what makes what we're doing so exciting. 'We do!' is a strong collective of faithful Christians people who have come together to affirm that a gay and lesbian couple have as much right to the sacred bond of holy matrimony as anyone else."
The reverend then explained about how "The Book of Discipline," which constitutes the law and doctrine of the United Methodist Church, is a living document, and not, as she put it, "a baseball bat for hurting others," and how every four years (starting in 1784!) representatives of all the Methodists get together, talk about what's in "The Book of Discipline," make whatever changes or adjustments to its text are voted necessary, and then publish a new edition. As I am sure you read in the press release above, the next Methodist General Conference will be April 24 through May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Fla.
Boy, big American Christian denominations really put the organized in organized religion. It's all so startlingly/boringly democratic. (Fact break: In the United States, The United Methodist Church ranks as the largest Mainline denomination, the second largest Protestant church after the Southern Baptist Convention, and the third largest Christian denomination. As of 2007, worldwide membership was about 12 million: 8 million in the United States and Canada, 3.5 million in Africa, Asia and Europe. So. There it is.)
"Ultimately, I and others who believe in the sanctity of marriage equality would like the language of 'The Book of Discipline' to be changed to reflect full affirmation of gay and lesbian equality. But will those changes be made in 2012? They very well might. But either way, it will ultimately happen. I'm confident that Christ will guide the United Methodist Church to become the welcoming, just and reconciling church it was meant to be."
Finally, I asked Rev. Lamar-Sterling if there was anything she'd like to say to anyone reading this.
"I would like everyone to know," she said, "that all people are created in God's image; all are sacred. God's love is not discriminatory, or selective; it does not include some, and exclude others. It is for all. I want gay and lesbian people to know that they are welcomed in the United Methodist Church. Come, join us, as we, along with you, say, we do!"
Boy. The Rev. Lamar-Sterling is one perky pastor. I would so go to her church.
As I later reflected back on my conversation with the good reverend, I fell asleep. I dreamed I was a Jimmy Olsen-style reporter, pitching to the editor of big New York news magazine the story of the "We do!" movement.
"Nine hundred!" I told him. "That's a lot of Methodists!"
"Look, kid," said the editor. He was sitting on a green leather high-backed chair behind a wooden desk you could land a helicopter on. He was gruff, but fair. Wore suspenders. But whatever.
"I ain't saying this is no story at all," he said around his chomped cigar. "But it isn't exactly a four-ton reptile stomping down Broadway tossing cars and eating people, is it? I mean, whaddaya really have here? A bunch of Christians who looked into their hearts, found the God in whom they believe telling them that gay people have the same right to get married, under God, as straight people, and who then organized themselves into a body that reflects that belief. Right, kid?"
"Well, I mean -- yeah. I guess that's basically about right."
"Right. Kid, that ain't news.That's Methodists organizing. This is about meetings and procedures and conversations and collective discernment and all of those things which slowly but surely have always changed, always improved, always evolved the body of Christ on earth."
"Holy cow," I said. "Who are you?"
"I'm God," he said softly. "And things are unfolding exactly as they should."
I looked out the window at a brilliant rainbow arcing over the city.
"Now if you come across any giant dinosaurs wreaking havoc," said God, "you call me."
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