Public defiance of The United Methodist Church’s same-sex marriage ban has increasingly made headlines in the last few months. But the action set for Saturday, March 1, will be like no other, featuring three octogenarian Texas men.
The Rev. William McElvaney, 85, plans to officiate at the Dallas wedding of Jack Evans, 84, and George Harris, 80. The latter have been a couple for 53 years, and for more than two decades have been active members of Dallas’ Northaven United Methodist Church, where McElvaney is pastor emeritus.
McElvaney has liver cancer and will undergo radiation Wednesday, Feb. 26. But he intends to take his stand against the United Methodist law on Saturday, even if he has to sit while doing so.
“George and Jack are amenable to different kinds of situations,” McElvaney said. “They said, `If you need to do the service seated, fine. No problem.’”
The United Methodist Church has, since its 1972 General Conference, declared the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching. Church law also prevents United Methodist clergy from officiating at same-sex unions and United Methodist churches from hosting such services.
“I think the church is on the wrong side of the gospel on this, and the wrong side of history,” McElvaney said last week. “We claim that our purpose is to make disciples of Jesus Christ and therefore to transform the world. I’m saying, `Transform the world?’ By excluding a whole group of people? Who are we kidding? That’s just myopic, blindness.”
Bishop Michael McKee of the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference has not commented publicly on McElvaney’s plan to do the March 1 service.
The Rev. Mike Walker, a retired United Methodist ordained elder in Dallas and board member of Good News, an unofficial caucus within the denomination that supports the church’s teaching and positions on homosexuality, did voice objection.
“I’m deeply saddened that a fellow colleague in ministry for all these years in the North Texas Conference has decided to plan an act seemingly in defiance of church law on a very controversial and divisive issue, and on an issue which the church has settled through a long series of decision-making processes,” he said.
Walker added, “I’m sure that Bill sees this as an act of justice or perhaps pastoral care, but I see this as an issue of covenant-keeping and an issue of the meaning of marriage and the boundaries for proper sexual behavior.”
Making a statement
McElvaney — an ordained elder since 1957 — announced in a Jan. 19 Northaven worship service that he would risk a church trial and the possibility of losing his clergy credentials by officiating at a same-sex service, if a couple came forward asking for one.
Evans and Harris were ushers at Northaven the morning of McElvaney’s announcement, and also were celebrating their anniversary. They soon met with McElvaney and worked out the plan for a March 1 wedding.
Texas is not among the 17 states that have legalized same-sex marriage, and, in fact, has a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. But Evans and Harris, who have not ruled out going to another state for a service recognized by law, still chose to have a church wedding with McElvaney officiating.
“We want to make a statement to the Methodist Church,” Harris said.
Saturday’s service will not be at Northaven United Methodist. McElvaney made clear on Jan. 19 that he did not want to put Northaven or its pastor, the Rev. Eric Folkerth, in violation of church law.
The service will be at nearby Midway Hills Christian Church, which is in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination.
“We’re looking forward to this,” said the Rev. Arthur Stewart, pastor of Midway Hills Christian. “Northaven’s a great sister church.”
The wedding will be Texas-size, with 16 friends of Evans and Harris — a group that went with them on their 50th anniversary cruise — standing with them for the vows.
The Midway Hills sanctuary, with seating for 250 to 300, may not accommodate the crowd.
“We could have 200 people here from Northaven alone,” Folkerth said.
While the wedding won’t be at Northaven United Methodist, the reception will be. Northaven has long been a member of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus working to change The United Methodist Church’s position on homosexuality, and gays and lesbians make up about a third of its membership.
Sharing work, life
Evans grew up in Olney, Texas, attending a Presbyterian Church. Harris is from Flora, Miss., where his parents helped start a Methodist church.
"We were there every time the doors opened,” he recalled.
Evans and Harris said they met in 1961 at a party thrown by an antiques dealer whose clients included Betty Criswell, wife of the Rev. W.A. Criswell, who for decades led the First Baptist Church of Dallas with fiery, fundamentalist preaching.
Along with living together for more than a half century, Evans and Harris were longtime partners in selling real estate.
“We worked together and lived together for 38 years,” Harris said. “You may imagine that that has its own challenges.”
They are a Mutt and Jeff couple, with Harris standing 5 feet, 4 inches, and Evans almost a foot taller. Both are gentle in demeanor, known to provide cookies regularly to their street’s garbage men, and to have bags of food staples in their sport utility vehicle for handing out to the homeless.
But they are activists in their own way, having years ago started a series of networking lunches for gay-owned businesses, which became the Stonewall Business & Professional Association and evolved into North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce.
Evans and Harris more recently founded The Dallas Way, a nonprofit aimed at preserving the history of the gay rights effort in Dallas through video interviews and more. Both men say they lost jobs as young men (Harris in the military and Evans in retail) over their sexual orientation, and they strongly believe that discrimination and the effort to overcome it should be remembered.
Focus on justice
In his long career, McElvaney led Northaven and other United Methodist churches. He also was a professor at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University and served as president of Saint Paul School of Theology. Both seminaries are United Methodist.
He is a graduate of Perkins and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration at SMU. His father was a board chairman at SMU (where a dorm is named McElvaney Hall) and McElvaney himself received a Perkins’ Distinguished Alumnus Award last year.
But McElvaney is perhaps best known in Dallas for his work for peace and social justice causes. He’s author of the book “Becoming a Justice Seeking Congregation,” and helped lead a high-profile, unsuccessful campaign against having a public policy institute as part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU.
McElvaney has long pushed for full inclusion in The United Methodist Church, including ordination of lesbians and gays. He said his decision to officiate at a same-sex wedding wasn’t precipitated by any one thing but part of a strengthening conviction.
“I had to grow some just to sort of understand and be mentored by my gay and lesbian friends as to what it’s like to be in their shoes,” he said.
The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, noted that of those United Methodist pastors who have officiated at same-sex ceremonies, McElvaney would be in a “lower-risk category.”
McElvaney is retired, so he would not lose a salary even if he lost his credentials after a church trial. The denomination’s Board of Pension and Health Benefits has said that federal law and provisions of its retirement plan prevent withholding pension benefits earned by clergy.
Still, Lambrecht strongly appealed to McElvaney not to do the March 1 service.
“When clergy publicly perform ceremonies that the worldwide United Methodist Church does not recognize, it only further exacerbates the present strife and division within our denomination,” Lambrecht said.
McElvaney, though, said he has received many calls and messages of support since making his announcement, and he plans to follow through.
“My only second thought is, `Why didn’t I do this sooner?’” he said.
He added that he’s aware of divisions in the denomination and mindful of the need to advocate in the right spirit.
“Our task is also to love those who have the contrary opinion. That’s the harder love for us, and it is upon us.”
*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]