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Methodist ministers back gay marriage

More than 100 in N.E. sign on

By Ben Wolford
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2011

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More than 100 Methodist ministers in New England have pledged to marry gay couples in defiance of the denomination’s national leadership, which maintains a ban on same-sex unions.

Roughly 1 out of 9 Methodist clergy in the region signed a statement this month pledging to open their churches to gay and lesbian couples.

“We repent that it has taken us so long to act,’’ they wrote in the statement.

“We realize that our church’s discriminatory policies tarnish the witness of the church to the world, and we are [complicit].’’

The pastors could face stiff sanctions if they flout church doctrine, ranging from receiving a warning to being defrocked, said Alexx Wood, spokeswoman for the church’s New England Conference.

“It is quite a statement that they’re doing this,’’ she said.

Support for same-sex marriage has percolated inside the United Methodist Church since 2008, when the church’s top legislative body, the General Conference, took a vote that narrowly affirmed the denomination’s stance against same-sex unions.

That contentious vote for the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination illustrated a clear rift that has bubbled from the ranks of some 400 clergy in New York, Illinois, and Minnesota who have signed statements akin to the pledge from the New England ministers.

The General Conference includes nearly 1,000 clergy and lay members from around the world who meet every four years to set policy. It decided by a 501-to-417 vote in 2008 to leave provisions barring gay marriage and the practice of homosexuality intact.

Church advocates of gay marriage say that by opposing such unions, the Methodist leadership is forfeiting core values of justice and equality.

A broad contingent of church leaders, however, does not wish to change the passages regarding gay marriage in the Book of Discipline, the church’s record of policies and beliefs.

“I basically agree with our position as a church,’’ said Bishop Peter D. Weaver, head of the New England Conference, which oversees pastors in the region.

“We have what I think is a good process of holy conferencing,’’ Weaver said, calling it democratic and representative. “I’m committed to supporting that process.’’

The General Conference convenes again next April, when church leaders expect the issue of gay marriage to be addressed again, as it has for nearly four decades, Wood said.

This time, members of the church hierarchy said, they expect the debate to be animated by the recent fervent opposition to the ban on gay marriage.

The Rev. LaTrelle Miller Easterling, pastor of Union United Methodist Church in Boston’s South End, signed the statement, she said, because she could not in good conscience deny a practicing member of her church her marriage blessing because the person is gay.

“We’re laying on the line our ordination that many of us have worked four to eight years to get, as well as the expense and time of the seminary,’’ she said. “I certainly stand by this movement.’’

Last month, the Baltimore-Washington Conference passed a resolution— subject to approval by the General Conference — that would allow same-sex marriage in places where civil law already allows it.

Other Protestant denominations have engaged in similar debates. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted in 2009 to allow sexually active gays and lesbians to serve as clergy.

Also in 2009, Bishop M. Thomas Shaw III of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts authorized priests in the Commonwealth to perform gay marriages after the US Episcopal Church offered a vague directive to practice “pastoral generosity’’ regarding same-sex relationships.

“For us, being pastorally generous is to be allowed to do this,’’ said the Rev. Jep Streit, dean of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boston.

Marriage, however, should not be considered the only solution, said the Rev. Daniel Weaver, a retired United Methodist Church pastor in New Hampshire. He said he will not sign the statement in support of gay marriage.

“There are justice issues — I don’t argue that at all. I just don’t think this is the best way to deal with those issues,’’ Weaver said, pointing to taxation and hospital benefits as significant rights concerns.

“The attempt here to leapfrog into solving these issues by using marriage as a tool is an overreach,’’ he said.

Ben Wolford can be reached at bwolford@globe.com.