A Vote in Memory of Queer Clergy Pioneer, Paul Abels
Methodork (METH-uh-dawrk) noun A Methodist who knows well and takes an interest in the structure and polity of their denomination. If you’re a Methodist who knows what “polity” means, you’re probably a Methodork.
Book of Discipline (buk uhv DIH-suh-plin) proper noun A book of theological standards, social principles, and laws that govern the United Methodist denomination. A true Methodork Book of Discipline will contain a number of sticky notes, highlights, and opinionated expressions like exclamation marks and the occasional smiley face.
annual conference (AY-nyu-uhl CON-frens) noun The yearly gathering of clergy and laity of a Methodist region, which is also (confusingly) called an “annual conference”. The bar at the Marriott Hotel fills up with Methodorks when the annual conference is in session.
BOOM (BOOM) proper noun Board of Ordained Ministry, an annual conference board that credentials United Methodist clergy and holds them accountable. One of many many many acronyms in the United Methodist Church. Yelling “BOOM!” at a young Methodork in the ordination process and then laughing when they wince is a mean joke.
When you think of United Methodists, the word ritual may not be the first thing that comes to mind. We don’t do incense or anointing or gilded clergy regalia very often or well. Our rituals more often involve things like deviled eggs, singing in spontaneous four part harmony, and…well…meetings.
I’ll let you in on a little insider information. One of the highest privileges of being a member of the United Methodist clergy is sitting once a year in a regional ritual meeting known as the annual conference “clergy session”. Being a relative newbie to this elect clergy group, I have only experienced the ritual seven times. And, from my humble perspective, it is probably the most boring two hours of my entire year. Real Methodorks might disagree with me, but basically, we all crowd into one room while various people take turns reading legalese from the Book of Discipline, interspersed with long lists of names. It’s kind of like sitting in a church service in which there is a 2 hour not-so-dramatic reading of Biblical genealogies and Levitical laws.
But this year is an exception for me. This year, I am full of emotions about this most boring event. I might even cry. You see, one of the things that happens at clergy session is that people who are answering a call from God to become new clergy stand before the body, and we vote on whether or not we will allow them to join our ranks. Each of these folks has been through a rigorous process of evaluation, including an extensive psychological exam, long and profound theological papers, days of in-person interviews over the course of years, and seminary education. And, if they get through all of THAT, they stand on the stage in front of all the clergy and wait for us to vote on them.
In my experience, it usually goes like this. The bishop invites the year’s class of five to ten candidates to walk up onto the stage. They’re sharply dressed and really embarrassed. Videos are played of each person smiling and talking about what they are excited about in their future ministry. And then the bishop asks them to turn around and face the back of the stage as a cutesy way of keeping the vote “secret” from them. Finally, the bishop says, “All who affirm these folks, say ‘Hallelujah’!” And everyone says a boisterous “Hallelujah!” The candidates turn around, the bishop announces the “results” of the vote, and we all clap and sing for ten minutes while the candidates receive hugs and prepared gift bags. It’s one of the less boring moments of the whole ordeal.
But a few days ago, that joyful ritual was disrupted at the Baltimore-Washington annual conference, when one candidate was isolated, a real vote was taken, and she did not receive enough support to join the clergy ranks. There was no “Hallelujah”, no joyful hug, and no prepared gift bag for T.C. Morrow at this year’s clergy session. And the reason? She is married to another woman. T.C. is a known and respected chaplain, advocate for social justice, and founding staff member at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. This year, the Baltimore-Washington Board of Ordained Ministry (BOOM), which evaluates candidates for ordination, publicly declared that they were recommending T.C. to the clergy session, in spite of United Methodist law, which bars “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from ordination. But, in the end, her clergy session refused to act with the same courage.
I am angered and disappointed by what happened to T.C. last week, but my heart is aching for what will happen this week. You see, this week, my New York Annual Conference will meet, and on the first night, our clergy session will pile into a room and take similar votes for our candidates, many of whom are beloved friends of mine.
I know how hard these friends have worked. I know how relieved many of them were when our own Board of Ordained Ministry, just weeks before some of their interviews, defiantly declared that they would not be considering sexual orientation in their deliberations. I know how liberating it was for them to finally feel safe enough to come out to their church. I know how courageous they have had to be and how wrong it is that we asked them to summon such courage. And I KNOW that they have been called by God, and I KNOW that I need them by my side as we lead the church into the future. And I also know that they saw what happened to T.C., and that they will walk onto the stage this Wednesday with some fear that they should never have to experience in the presence of their colleagues and mentors and “church family”.
This year, the clergy session will not be boring. It will be sad and anxious and sickening. No matter what happens. Because of the legal discrimination in our denomination, because T.C. Morrow experienced spiritual violence last week, some of my friends will have an unjust experience on that stage this week.
I am also feeling feelings because I know that our New York Annual Conference clergy session can be a place of courage and just struggle. And the defiantly hopeful side of my faith believes that it will be again this week. In 1978, our clergy session voted against the wishes of our bishop, who was attempting to remove a beloved pastor from ministry because of his sexual orientation. The pastor’s name was Rev. Paul Abels. Paul had been serving Washington Square United Methodist Church in New York City’s Greenwich Village for five years and had publicly come out as gay the year before, making him the first pastor of a mainline local church to come out. While there was, at that time, no restriction on gay clergy in our denomination (the “good old days”), the bishop sought to remove him from ministry. But our Board of Ordained Ministry reported to the clergy session that Paul Abels was in good standing, and, after much debate, the clergy session voted to accept the report. Paul continued to faithfully serve Washington Square until 1984.
Washington Square has since merged to become The Church of the Village, where I now serve as a pastor. Paul Abels’ work at Washington Square is still felt among older members of the church, and I am so honored to be a descendant of his ministry. It was significant and courageous and full of principled spirituality, and our church, our annual conference would be diminished if not for the sacred and prophetic vote of that 1978 clergy session.
The ministries of my friends who are about to walk vulnerable into our clergy session are significant, courageous, and full of principled spirituality. I implore my colleagues who have the right to vote in this 2016 New York Annual Conference clergy session to remember that we stand on the shoulders of clergy who have resisted evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they have presented themselves. I will proudly be casting my votes in memory of Paul.