Church votes no weddings until all can wed

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A Texas congregation has voted that no couples can say “I do” in its sanctuary while the denomination bans same-gender weddings.

First United Methodist Church in downtown Austin, which has a number of LGBTQ members, took the Sept. 24 vote after more than a year of lay-led conversation and discernment. The final tally was 266 to 20 — or 93 percent — in favor of the new wedding policy.

“My hope, which I already see being borne out, is that it will have a uniting effect on the congregation,” said the Rev. Taylor Fuerst, the church’s senior pastor. “It communicates even more to our city that if you are in the LGBTQ community that you are not tolerated here, but you are embraced.”

Weddings already scheduled at the church, across the street from the Texas capitol, will take place as planned. The church vote means that, at least for the time being, no new marriage ceremonies will be scheduled.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, has asserted since 1972, that all individuals are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The denomination defines marriage as a covenant “between a man and a woman.” Since 1996, the denomination also has banned pastors from performing and churches from hosting ceremonies that celebrate same-gender unions.

However, the denomination does not require any congregation to hold weddings.

“The action of First United Methodist Church in Austin does not violate the Book of Discipline,” said Bishop Robert Schnase in a statement. He leads the Rio Texas Conference, which includes the congregation.

“Boards of trustees of local congregations set their own facility-use policies,” he added. “This was a decision made at the local level in compliance with our rules.”

Among those who spoke in favor of the congregation’s new policy was Riley Nix, who for the past two years has worked part-time as the congregation’s wedding coordinator.

During that time, she said, the only couples who got married in the picturesque church were not part of the congregation.

Meanwhile, Nix was among the congregation’s gay leaders who recently got married but could not do so in their church home.

“I said, ‘Voting yes to the resolution was one of the things that showed that we know that it isn’t quite yet but we are working toward making it right,’” she told United Methodist News Service.

Davis Covin, who serves the church in a variety of roles including on the discernment team that drafted the resolution, said he found the vote “incredibly validating.”

“This vote demonstrates that our members are willing to sacrifice a position of privilege in order to stand in solidarity with those who are discriminated against,” said Covin, whose husband is also a leader in the church. “I think this also serves as a great example to the children and youth in our church by showing that our members strive for social justice and equality for all God’s children.”

Reconciling Ministries Network, an advocacy group that seeks the full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in all aspects of church life, said 11 United Methodist churches have gone on record saying they will not host any weddings.

Among them is Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which made that decision in March 2013.

The Rev. Kelly Carpenter, the church’s pastor, said he has heard no complaints from the congregation. But that first year, the church had protesters on Easter and the Sunday before Christmas. It has been three years since the protesters returned, he said. Meanwhile, he has continued to refrain from officiating at any weddings in the church’s building.

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, a leader in Good News, which seeks to maintain church teachings on human sexuality, sees such decisions as driving a further wedge in the denomination.

“Churches who vote not to hold any weddings while the church bans same-gender unions are demonstrating the kind of extreme progressivism that makes it difficult to envision any kind of compromise solution to our church's impasse,” Lambrecht said.

“These churches are determined to change The United Methodist Church’s position, regardless of the convictions of a majority of our global members. We believe such efforts are ultimately self-defeating, diminish our church’s capacity to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and make it more apparent that portions of our church are simply unable to live together in the same body.”

Recent years have seen United Methodist clergy and congregations openly defy the denomination’s bans on same-gender unions.

However, General Conference — the denomination’s multinational lawmaking assembly — has consistently voted to keep the “incompatible” language and over the years has spelled out restrictions against “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and same-gender marriages.

During General Conference 2016, rumors quickly spread of a potential church split over homosexuality. In the wake of those rumors, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly authorized the denomination’s bishops to form a Commission on Way Forward to seek to find a course through the impasse.

The bishops have called a special General Conference in 2019 to take up a report based on what the commission recommends. Among the commission’s 32 members are Schnase, Lambrecht and Matt Berryman, the former executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network.

Members of First United Methodist Church in Austin hold out hope that General Conference will find a way to allow gay couples to marry within United Methodist Church walls. The congregation’s resolution says the church will revisit the no-weddings policy two months after the 2019 General Conference.

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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