By Sam Hodges*
DALLAS (UMNS) — A retired United Methodist seminary president and pastor said Sunday that he is willing to defy church law to officiate at same-sex weddings.
The Rev. William McElvaney made the announcement during worship at Northaven United Methodist Church here, drawing a standing ovation in a packed sanctuary.
McElvaney, retired president of Saint Paul School of Theology and professor at Perkins School of Theology — United Methodist schools — said his “heartbreak” over the denomination’s stands on homosexuality led him to risk possible charges, a church trial and loss of his clergy credentials.
“We’ll see where it goes,” McElvaney, 85, said after the service. “The uncertainty of where this leads is characteristic of standing up for inclusion in our church.”
Though some United Methodist pastors have officiated at same-sex weddings and many in some parts of the country have signed petitions saying they are willing to do so, McElvaney said he is unaware of a United Methodist pastor in Texas who has made the offer he has.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, since 1972 has proclaimed the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The Book of Discipline also prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from performing “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”
Bishop Michael McKee of the North Texas Conference said through a spokesperson that he had no comment on the McElvaney announcement.
The Rev. Eric Folkerth, pastor at Northaven, said two nearby churches from other denominations have agreed to host same-sex weddings for McElvaney to officiate.
Folkerth said that arrangement will allow Northaven to make a statement against United Methodist law regarding homosexuality while also serving the needs of Northaven members, about one-third of whom are gay.
“Same-sex marriage is a pastoral necessity of this congregation right now,” Folkerth said.
Texas has a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, but some churches in the state have wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples. Folkerth said 14 same-sex couples at Northaven have been legally married out of state, including seven last year.
When McElvaney will perform a same-sex wedding is unclear. Folkerth and McElvaney both said they had no couple in mind before the latter’s announcement and declined to predict a time frame for such a service.
But longtime Northaven members George Harris and Jack Evans — who celebrated their 53rd anniversary as a couple on Sunday — said they want a Dallas church wedding performed by McElvaney.
“We’ll be meeting with Bill,” Harris said.
McElvaney is a former pastor of Northaven and remains active there. From the pulpit, he criticized the denomination for continuing to have church trials for clergy who officiate at same-sex weddings.
“These inhumane actions by the UMC, favoring law over love, the Book of Discipline over the book of discipleship — that is, the New Testament — cruelty over compassion, constitute the Methodist version of inquisition in the 20th and 21st centuries,” McElvaney said.
McElvaney acknowledged that as a retired pastor, the consequences of a church trial would be less serious for him than for active clergy. He said he doesn’t like the idea of borrowing another church for a wedding but would do so to spare Northaven and Folkerth trouble with the denomination.
“Rest assured that I will not take any action that would bring harm to Northaven or to Eric,” he told the congregation on Sunday. “This means that a service of same-sex celebration would need to happen beyond Northaven property. I’m not entirely at peace with this arrangement because it suggests that I accept the church’s authority to make this demand. I would hold my nose and gladly officiate elsewhere in order to be hand in hand with those seeking a religious-oriented event.”
From the Northaven pulpit Sunday, Folkerth was just as critical as McElvaney of church law regarding homosexuality. But he said he is unwilling now, as an active pastor with family obligations, to expose himself to a possible church trial and loss of credentials.
“I think I’ll be ready for that at some point,” Folkerth said. “I’m just not ready right this moment.
McElvaney is author of the book “Becoming a Justice Seeking Congregation,” and has long been active in peace and social justice campaigns in Dallas. He helped lead the opposition at Southern Methodist University, his alma mater, to having a policy institute with the George W. Bush Presidential Center there.*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com