In many ways, Aley United Methodist, an hour south of Dallas in the tiny town of Seven Points, fits the small, rural Texas church stereotype.
The sanctuary is a frame-and-brick building with old Cokesbury hymnals in the pews and huge live oaks in the yard. Much of the congregation is retirement age, everybody knows everybody, and the pianist plays by ear.
But on July 10, Aley (rhymes with “daily”) became the second North Texas Conference church — the first in a rural setting — to declare itself open to same-sex weddings. Those are prohibited in United Methodist churches under the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s lawbook.
Gay people in rural settings have, generally speaking, faced less acceptance than in cities, said the Rev. Ted Campbell, a church historian at United Methodist Perkins School of Theology. He noted that The United Methodist Church has long had many congregations in rural and small town America.
But about 80 percent of Aley’s members and regular attendees voted Sunday to support their pastor, who asked for backing to conduct same-sex weddings at the church.
“Change is inevitable, and this change has been too long in coming,” said Jim Braswell, an Aley member and mayor of nearby Gun Barrel City, Texas.
The Rev. Eston Williams, 67 and in his 18th year as a licensed local pastor at Aley, preached a June 12 sermon in which he said he had long opposed the church’s position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
He told his congregation that he had been persuaded by various factors to make a public stand by offering to perform same-sex weddings. He noted his frustration that General Conference 2016 did not bring change in church law regarding homosexuality.
But the big push came from his two daughters, both in their 20s, who told him they didn’t want to be in a denomination that isn’t fully inclusive.
“Can you imagine how a United Methodist pastor feels when his daughters feel that way about his church?” he said in the sermon.
Williams asked for a secret ballot vote after the sermon on whether the church, founded in 1889, supported him. An overwhelming majority said they did.
“I knew that I probably had half the folks in my corner, but I was very surprised that number would say yes, they agreed,” Williams said.
This past Sunday, the church approved a formal statement. It says the United Methodist official stance that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching “is itself incompatible with the will of God, as we understand it from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.”
It concludes with “we support our pastor to hold same-gender weddings in the sanctuary of Aley United Methodist Church.”
Williams said he sent the church statement to North Texas Conference Bishop Michael McKee. McKee issued his own statement July 12 saying, “The cabinet of the North Texas Conference will be in conversation with the leadership and the pastor of Aley United Methodist Church in the coming days.”
McKee added that the conference in June adopted a resolution affirming the Council of Bishops’ and General Conference’s action creating a commission on human sexuality and church unity. The resolution calls for a “new reality” in which “space is given” for diverse ministry approaches to LGBT people; but it also, as McKee notes, calls for upholding the Book of Discipline.
Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas recently voted to be open to same-sex weddings. But it has long been known for progressive social issue positions.
Aley would seem a huge surprise in stepping out on same-sex weddings. But Richard Hearne, former lay leader of the North Texas Conference, believes that analysis is too easy.
“It’s an excellent church, but it’s not a normal rural church,” said Hearne. “They’ve always been a very progressive congregation.”
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of Good News — an unofficial evangelical caucus in the church that supports the Book of Discipline language on homosexuality — described Aley as an anomaly.
“I think most churches have a mix of views in their congregations, but few would be seeking to act contrary to the Discipline,” he said. “I think more churches across the country would vote to support the (denomination’s) current position than would vote to change it.”
Weighing the decision
Of 87 Aley members and regular attendees who voted this past Sunday, 69 gave full approval of the statement. Eight approved all but the paragraph about same-sex weddings. Eight opposed the statement, and two voted “undecided.”
Robert Penn supported most of the statement, but isn’t ready for same-sex weddings at the church. He fears Williams will be removed as pastor.
“I’m very much in favor of his agenda, including the marriage part,” Penn said. “What I’m not in favor of is him sticking his head up and getting shot, and being out of the fight.”
Glenna Roodhouse voted against the statement. She too favors full inclusivity, including same-sex weddings, but worries about the consequences for Aley if it violates church law.
“I think our congregation is too aged to go through what Eston is asking us to face,” she said. “I love God, our church, and Eston, but stand by my vote.”
As a local pastor, Williams is not guaranteed an appointment.
“They could just say goodbye to me,” he said.
But he noted that he’s at retirement age. He added that if he lost his position with The United Methodist Church, he would consider starting an independent, fully inclusive church.
“The majority of the church would follow Eston wherever he went,” said Sally Chapman, an Aley member.
Aley’s membership includes a lesbian couple, Elaine Boze and Beverly Carpenter, who are adamant that they did not push the same-sex wedding question at Aley.
“It was Eston’s idea, not ours,” Boze said.
But the couple, together 16 years, support Williams’ efforts and appreciate the welcome they’ve had at Aley since joining in 2009.
“They didn’t just accept us – they enfolded us,” Boze said. “One guy in the choir said, ʽIf anybody has a problem with it, I’ll pound them into the ground.’ ”
Others in and out of the congregation say that while tiny Seven Points and other local communities are overwhelmingly white and politically conservative — with lots of pickup trucks and Confederate flags — they include many retirees and weekenders from Dallas drawn by Cedar Creek Lake, a major recreation site.
Boze and Carpenter noted that there’s a gay bar in the area, and a mostly gay group meets for church at the lake. They said they’ve felt accepted in the community.
Even in a generally tolerant atmosphere, Aley United Methodist stands out, some say. Cindy and Lee Barrett joined after leaving a church they found to be homophobic. They have a gay daughter in Oklahoma.
“We decided it was time to find a church where our daughter would be welcomed,” Cindy Barrett said. She added that Aley proved such a church “from day one.”
The Rev. Larry Davis, in his 29th year as a local pastor leading College Mound United Methodist Church, in Terrell, Texas, believes there’s been movement on LGBT issues among rural churches in the North Texas Conference.
“We have gays in our church,” he said. “We’re a very conservative country type church, and yet the people openly accept them and love them and care for them.”
Davis, near retirement, doesn’t plan to follow Williams’ lead with same-sex weddings. But he thinks College Mound United Methodist might well support him if he did.
The Rev. Roger Grace, president of United Methodist Rural Advocates, said he was unaware of a vote like Aley’s among small, rural United Methodist churches nationwide. But he said it might well have happened, and added that such churches are “across the spectrum” on whether the denomination should change its stance on homosexuality.
Meanwhile, Williams said he’ll talk to the North Texas Conference cabinet. But he remains ready to do a same-sex wedding.
Ron Chapman, retired judge and current chair of the church council, said Aley is with him.
“He is committed to this, and we are steady in his support.”
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]