A growing number of pastors in the United Methodist Church say they're no longer willing to obey a rule that prohibits them from officiating at same-sex weddings, despite the potential threat of being disciplined or dismissed from the church.
In some parts of the United States, Methodist pastors have been marrying same-sex couples or conducting blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions for years with little fanfare and no backlash from the denomination. Calls to overturn the rule have become increasingly vocal in recent weeks, ratcheting up the pressure for the Methodist Church to join other mainline Protestant denominations that have become more accepting of openly gay leaders.
While trials of pastors who conduct same-gender ceremonies have only occurred once every several years, the threat is indeed real. The Rev. Amy DeLong of Osceola in western Wisconsin faces a three-day trial starting Tuesday in Kaukauna on two charges: violating a church prohibition on the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" and marrying a lesbian couple.
The jury for the church trial will be selected from a pool of Wisconsin United Methodist clergy. A total of 13 clergy will be chosen to serve during the trial and penalty phase.
DeLong said she told her supervisors years ago that she was in a lesbian relationship and felt comforted by the support and caring she got in response.
She said her efforts to live halfway in the closet and halfway out took such a toll that she finally decided to break her silence. DeLong agreed to marry a lesbian couple in the fall of 2009, and she didn't mince words when she mentioned it in a required ministerial report a few months later. Eventually the two church charges were filed against her. "When I entered [the ministry], I did not suspend my conscience," said DeLong, 44. "It's incumbent on me not to perpetuate [the church's] unjust laws."
The chances of getting the rule reversed within the Methodist Church are far from certain, however. Rule changes face approval by delegates at the church's General Conference, held every four years. Because a growing number of delegates come from African countries, the Philippines and other theologically conservative regions, voting patterns reflect strong resistance to change.
That hasn't stopped Methodist clergy in the United States from raising the stakes. Hundreds of pastors from areas including Illinois, Minnesota, New York and New England have signed statements in recent weeks asserting their willingness to defy the rule.
Those who do so could be charged with violating denominational law and required to face a church trial.
One retired pastor in Massachusetts has been defying the ban on same-sex weddings for more than 10 years without drawing any complaints and has no plans to stop. The Rev. Richard Harding, 85, said the church is only hurting itself by driving away both talented clergy and younger members who think the policy is out of touch.
"I'm getting on in years, and I may not see the change, but there's definitely an uprising taking place," he said. "There are signs that the pole of justice is beginning to lean the proper way. I think we'll see even more of this. We aren't going to go away."