By Heather Hahn*
“I won’t live my life without her no matter what happens,” said the Rev. Joanne Carlson Brown of her partner, the Rev. Christie Newbill.
The two United Methodist pastors made that promise before God and each other in a wedding Dec. 7 that drew more than 300 people to Tibbetts United Methodist Church in Seattle. The district superintendent for the two pastors, the Rev. Patricia Simpson, officiated.
Their promise means they will face whatever happens to them because they have disregarded The United Methodist Church’s ban on same-sex unions. Simpson could face charges under church law for officiating. It also is against church law for a same-sex ceremony to be held in a United Methodist church.
The marriage of the same-sex clergy couple marked what is a first in the Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference — and likely a first for the denomination. The ceremony took place at a time when United Methodist clergy, including retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, have publicly defied the church’s prohibition and more states are legalizing same-sex marriage.
But the couple and their district superintendent emphasized they were not trying to make news or take a public stand against the church’s much-contested teachings on homosexuality. Brown and Newbill — now the Rev. Christie Lagergren Brown — said they wanted a private ceremony before God, their church, family and friends.
“Christie gets me in a way that no one in the universe gets me, which is not easy sometimes,” Joanne Brown said. “I can’t imagine living my life without her.”
The three clergywomen agreed to an interview after United Methodist News Service learned of the nuptials from another individual.
“When Joanne and I moved to a place in our relationship where we were discussing marriage, we were not influenced by or were identifying in any way with other events throughout our denomination,” Christie Brown said. “I never considered this as (a statement) against The United Methodist Church. Our marriage is our statement for declaring to our friends and family, in the presence of God, our love and commitment for one another.”
Desire for church wedding
Joanne Brown said the two wanted a church wedding “because of the spiritual aspect of our relationship.”
At 60, she has been the pastor of Tibbetts United Methodist Church for the past seven years and a longtime adjunct professor at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, where she teaches courses on Wesleyan and Protestant Reformation history. She has a doctorate in historical theology and church history from United Methodist-related Boston University.
Her wife, 65, a former certified public accountant, has been the pastor since July of Woodland Park United Methodist Church.
The two met in 2003 when Christie Brown was a second-career ministerial student at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry and her future wife a professor. They became friends as clergy colleagues and have been a couple for two years.
Both of their congregations have voted to host any wedding that is legal in Washington State, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2012. The two churches identify themselves as part of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial group that advocates for greater inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals in the life of The United Methodist Church.
Church members as well as other United Methodist clergy attended the wedding, which blended traditions from the couple’s Scottish and Swedish roots. Joanne Brown wore a kilt. The Tibbetts handbell choir played the processional, a Swedish wedding march.
Simpson noted that as a district superintendent she is charged with providing pastoral care for clergy in her district and their families as well as upholding the Book of Discipline — the global denomination’s law book.
“It was under that responsibility for pastoral care that I said yes to Joanne and Christie,” Simpson said. “It’s not uncommon that there would be conflicts of that sort. Basically I came down on the pastoral side.”
Simpson also provided the couple with premarital counseling. She said her conversations with the couple assured her that theirs would be “a long-lived and life-giving relationship not only for them but also strengthening them in their ministry.”
Still, all three women acknowledged that there could be consequences for the wedding — consequences they say they are prepared to accept.
Church law and marriage
The United Methodist Book of Discipline affirms “the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.”
Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has said all people are of sacred worth but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Still, Joanne Brown — a cradle United Methodist — noted that church law has changed since she began pursuing a call to ordained ministry in the mid-1970s.
In 1984 — two years after Joanne Brown was ordained an elder — the church added the prohibition against “self-avowed practicing” gay individuals from serving “as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed in The United Methodist Church.”
In subsequent years, the church added the ban on United Methodist clergy performing, and churches hosting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.” Since 2004, violating either prohibition has been a chargeable offence under church law that potentially could lead to a church trial.
General Conference, which meets every four years and sets the laws for the denomination, in 2012 retained the earlier language and rejected a resolution that stated the church disagrees on sexuality. The next General Conference will be in 2016.
“I approach the Discipline the way I approach the Bible,” Joanne Brown said. “My hermeneutic coming both to the Scriptures and the Discipline is that the Gospel is a Gospel of radical love and liberation, and anything that does not speak the word of radical love and liberation is not of God.”
Christie Brown added that she tries to take in the fullness of the Discipline and Bible, and “what it means to be loved by God and loving of others for God.”
But even as the church by majority vote has maintained its stance on homosexuality, United Methodists who disagree increasingly have challenged that position in a public way.
Since 2011, more than 1,000 active and retired United Methodist clergy across the United States have signed pledges announcing their willingness to officiate at same-sex unions. The United Methodist Church has more than 46,000 active and retired clergy in the United States.
In 2012, delegates to the Western Jurisdiction — which encompasses the Pacific Northwest Conference and seven other conferences in the westernmost United States — voted to support a grassroots movement to act as if the stance against homosexuality in the Book of Discipline — Paragraph 161F — “does not exist.”
Even if a case stemming from the Browns’ marriage goes to trial, the Book of Discipline gives the trial court — a jury of 13 clergy — a range of penalties with a conviction. These include suspension or a lesser penalty.
Simpson said clergy in the Pacific Northwest Conference, which for years has supported efforts to change the Book of Discipline, might seek a lesser penalty to any complaint filed as a result of the wedding.
“Over the decades, literally hundreds of United Methodist pastors have faced choices about doing services for couples in their congregations or in their communities — either holy unions or in more recent times in some states, legal marriages,” she said. “This is not a new question, and not a unique set of decisions we have made.”
Joanne Brown said that since college she has been open about her sexual orientation and she and her wife have every intention of continuing to live their lives with integrity.
“I always trusted that what God had in mind would happen.”*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Kathy Gilbert, a UMNS reporter, also contributed to the story. Contact Hahn at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.