Same-sex wedding is high-profile prelim to church trial

Thursday was tuxedo-fitting day for Bill Gatewood, 70, and Rick Taylor, 55. Saturday is their wedding day.

They have been in love and living together for 25 years. On Nov. 9, a dream of theirs will come true when they are married in the presence of family and friends at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.

It is a wedding that is stirring many emotions in this global denomination because not only will this same-sex couple be married in a United Methodist church, more than 51 United Methodist pastors have said they will officiate. The number continues to grow from the original 31 pastors who agreed to officiate.

In addition to forbidding United Methodist pastors to perform same-sex unions or hold them in United Methodist churches, the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s lawbook, states that marriage is between a man and a woman.

“I don’t want anybody to get hurt or get in trouble,” said Gatewood, in his North Carolina drawl. “Rick and I love each other. … I have been at Arch Street for over 20 years and the church accepted me and him.”

“I am so moved and honored by this that every once in a while the gravity of this just gets to me and I have to come to tears,” said Taylor.

Both Taylor and Gatewood grew up when being gay was forbidden and not talked about.

“To be open about yourself is the greatest gift,” Taylor said. “You can give 300 percent of yourself when you are able to do that.”

The pastors who will be officiating at the wedding know they are doing this in defiance of church law. The Rev. David Brown, one of the pastors at Arch Street, said he doesn’t know whether this will change the church.

“We hope it will, but we know if we don’t do anything, then things will not change.”

In support of a pastor

Gatewood, Taylor and the pastors have said they are also doing this in support of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, who will go before a church trial on Nov. 18 in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference of The United Methodist Church for performing the same-sex marriage of his son.

The trial will be at Camp Innabah, Pa. Retired bishop Alfred Gwinn will preside. Bishop Peggy Johnson is episcopal leader for the Eastern Pennsylvania area. The prosecutor will be Christopher Fisher, a pastor in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and director of United Methodist Studies at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, Pa.

“The complaint is confidential under our church process, and I am not at liberty to provide any comment,” Johnson said. “I am in prayer for all involved in this process, and I urge everyone to join me in lifting up in prayer each of the persons involved.”

Schaefer officiated at his son’s wedding in 2007. A member of his congregation at Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., filed a complaint against him one month before the statute of limitations ran out.

His son had confided to his father and mother that he had contemplated suicide because he thought the messages he got from the church and culture made him feel something was wrong with him.

Schaefer said other paragraphs of the denomination’s law book speak of the sacred worth of all people and speaks of teens who are struggling with their sexual identity as needing special care.

“That is the story of my son,” he said.

Grave harm to covenant

What does the church say

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 prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from performing “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.”

The 2012 General Conference, when it met April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., rejected efforts to change that language, including aproposal to say the church was in disagreement about homosexuality. General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, will next convene in 2016.

Officiating at same-sex unions is a chargeable offense under the Book of Discipline. Clergy convicted in a church court can face a loss of clergy credentials or lesser penalties. However, church law does not censure those who disagree with church teaching on this matter — only those who actually take actions that violate church law.

The Book of Discipline also states thatmarriage is between a man and a woman.

The United Methodist Eastern Pennsylvania Evangelical Connection responded to the news that the pastors would officiate at the wedding with a statement imploring them to “reconsider their intended course; to consider the grave harm it will inflict on the covenant that binds us together as United Methodists; and to reflect on the irreparable damage it will render to trust, community and collegiality among us.”

The membership of the organization includes laity and clergy and has existed for decades, said Jane L. Bonner, president. “The mission is to articulate, teach, and advocate evangelical and orthodox Christianity among the laity and clergy of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church.”

Bonner does not believe the pastors’ action represents a movement toward changing the church’s stance on homosexuality within the conference.

“Many of the same clergy proposed a resolution at our annual conference to have Eastern Pennsylvania Conference officially oppose our current disciplinary stance on sexuality,” she said. “This was defeated decisively; now they appear to be trying to force a change which they could not persuade the conference to embrace through dialogue and debate.”

The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church is made up of 463 churches, which serve nearly 125,000 members in 16 counties. The conference has about 750 active pastors. The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and its sister Peninsula/Delaware Conference together make up the Philadelphia Area, with nearly 1,000 churches served by Bishop Johnson.

Love of church and each other

Pennsylvania has not legalized same-sex marriage, so the Saturday ceremony will be symbolic. Taylor said people have asked them why they don’t go to one of the 15 states where such unions are legal.

“Our answer is we live here and it has been our dream to be married in our church,” he said.

Taylor sings in the choir and Gatewood has served on several church committees as well as serving as head usher. They were invited to Arch Street by a friend more than 20 years ago and have always felt welcomed and accepted, Gatewood said.

Last year Gatewood suffered a major heart attack and was in the hospital off and on from March until August. It was the support of the church that got Taylor through the difficult time, he said.

Taylor said he was “treated like a stranger off the street” by the hospital officials because he and Gatewood are a gay couple and not legally married. A close friend of his who was going through a health crisis with her husband at the same time was appalled at the treatment Taylor was receiving.

The Rev. Robin M Hynicka, senior pastor at Arch Street, stood up for Taylor and helped him navigate the hospital system.

Taylor said he doesn’t want anyone else to go through what he went through while his partner was sick.

“We want to grow the church. That’s what we hope,” Taylor said. “We hope acceptance will grow the church.”

Brown said the young people at Arch Street “don’t understand what the big deal is. They have grown up in a world where this is normal.”

Laws have to change, society has to change and the church has to change, Brown said.

“The one thing that doesn’t change is the affirming love of God of this couple.”

* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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