Cynthia Meyer, pastor at Edgerton United Methodist Church, decided that in her first sermon of the new year she would come out to her congregation.
No small deal. First off, such a declaration could get her canned because the official stance of the denomination is that homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching. Second, she was in a small town in Kansas.
But she made her peace with both those. Then the big day arrived and when she showed up Sunday morning at the old brick church on Fourth Street, the furnace had stopped working and it was 53 degrees in the sanctuary.
Somebody of faith might have taken that as a sign this wasn’t such a great idea.
Not Meyer. God, she believed, was on her side.
So Meyer, 53, who grew up in another small Kansas town, stood at the pulpit in front of a flock snuggled under blankets and afghans, and she spilled insides that had churned for years. She wanted them to know their true pastor.
“At last I am choosing to serve in that role with full authenticity and as my genuine self — as a woman who loves and shares my life with another woman,” she told them.
Fallout came quickly. After the service, Meyer sent a copy of her sermon to her district superintendent, who filed a complaint alleging that Meyer is a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual.” On Friday, Meyer said she had been charged by the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church. A hearing is scheduled for next week in Topeka.
Also, Meyer said, one family said they would leave the Edgerton congregation.
Her announcement came as the United Methodist Church worldwide — already torn by fights over gay clergy and same-sex marriage — prepares for its general conference in May in Portland, Ore., with those issues high on the agenda.
Liberals think its high time the church joined some other denominations in being all-inclusive.
Conservatives stick to homosexuality being a sin.
The divide has already caused some to leave the church and has led to talk of a split of Methodist membership, one of the largest in America and widely considered the most mainstream of Protestant churches.
Meyer could impact a 12.5 million-member denomination.
Pastor Adam Hamilton at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood has suggested that to preserve the church, the question of gay clergy should be handled regionally to accommodate the country’s political spectrum.
Also, Hamilton says, younger clergy overwhelmingly support changing the church’s position on homosexuality.
Conservatives quickly slammed the idea as a “fundamental shift” and one that would solve nothing. In a letter signed by 90 ministers and posted on the United Methodist website, they wrote:
“We simply cannot abandon the Bible’s teachings on the practice of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Your proposal would put us, who believe that same sex relations are sinful, in the position of having to deny our consciences. This new policy is simply asking us to do something we cannot do.”
Some other denominations, including the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Christian Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), already allow LGBT clergy.
Plenty of church members think it’s time for the Methodists to catch up. But for now, what Meyer did Sunday violates the Methodist Book of Discipline, which has been church law since 1972.
The rule does not apply to membership.
A statement from Bishop Scott Jones acknowledged that many persons disagree with the ban against gay clergy, but the rule is still in effect and prompted the complaint against Meyer.
Mary Pritchard, a longtime member of the Edgerton church, thinks it’s time for change.
“There are some things maybe I don’t understand,” Pritchard said Wednesday. “But she (Meyer) is one of God’s children and I believe the church is wrong. She’s entitled to live her life.”
During the sermon Sunday, Meyer went on to say to the congregation that by telling them about Mary Palarino, her partner — who was there — and how their relationship is a holy part of God’s calling on their lives, that she can now, finally, be honest with them.
“I could stop saying I was going on vacation with a friend,” she told them. “I could stop pretending to live alone. I could stop denying who I am and who I faithfully love.”
For Sunday’s announcement in Edgerton, Meyer worked with a group called Reconciling Ministries Network, a Chicago-based organization that seeks full inclusion in the Methodist Church “of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love.”
“Cynthia did something incredible and something hardly anybody is willing to do,” said Matt Berryman, the group’s executive director. “So many people just leave the church. She wasn’t just out front about who she is and who she loves, but she did it in front of her congregation.”
The issue has been building within the United Methodist Church for some 40 years.
According to the Book of Discipline, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.
“Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”
In a piece Hamilton co-authored with an Ohio minister called “A Way Forward for a United Methodism,” they say progressives calling for inclusion “see the Bible’s teaching on same-gender relationships as similar to the Bible’s teaching on slavery, violence in the name of God, the role of women in the church and a host of other things found in the Bible, but which we no longer believe reflect God’s will for us today.”
But those same people, the two wrote, underestimate the number of members who are not ready for change.
“For conservatives the question is not about justice, but about faithfulness to scripture, as they understand it. To completely reverse the denomination’s position, even if progressives and moderates had the votes, would mean a significant loss of membership and vitality in many local churches, and across the denomination.”
Berryman, who attended Candler School of Theology at Emory University when Meyer served as the school’s assistant dean of students, said the conservatives are bolstered by the influx of Africans, who are expected to amount to 30 percent of delegates to the upcoming conference.
“If this were strictly an American issue, we would be past it by now,” Berryman said. “This is now more about politics than theology.”
On the Reconciling Ministries website, Meyer spoke to how the current ban stymied her ability to serve.
“It’s soul-crushing to speak to my congregation each week about God’s love for them as they are, while being unable to speak of my own God-given identity, my loving relationship, and much of my day-to-day life. I do this not only for myself, but for my partner, for my daughter, for all those who are excluded and for the good of the church.”
She hopes other gay clergy follow her lead.
“If I have to resign from the ministry I want it to mean something.”
On Wednesday morning with fresh slush in the parking lot, Bob Knabe, 66, carried donated bread and rolls into the dining room of the Methodist church in Edgerton.
The old building has been his place of worship for more than 50 years.
“It’s for whoever needs it,” Knabe said of the food.
He was there when Meyer made her announcement. It probably came as a surprise to some, he said. And while several perhaps didn’t know quite what to say to her afterward, he did.
“I told her she was my minister,” Knabe said.
Pritchard added: “We are small, but we are caring. I believe in all my heart that we will stand behind her and we will be fine.”
Later in the sanctuary, Meyer, who came to the church only six months ago, described her flock as kindhearted and said many came up to her after Sunday’s service and offered support.
She doesn’t want to leave this church.
“But the Book of Discipline is very specific and I have crossed the line,” she said, “and the people in the pews don’t do the voting.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182