One of the great privileges of my career was the opportunity to chair our Annual Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry. Last year, our Board went through a very rich discernment process that led us to approve T.C. Morrow for commissioning as a deacon in our church. T.C. is an extraordinarily gifted candidate for ministry with an acute theological mind, enormous emotional intelligence, and a passion for justice. She is an ideal candidate for ministry, and exactly the type of person that the church should be encouraging into ministry.
T.C. was a slam dunk as a candidate, save for one issue: she is married to another woman. But the Board discerned enough space within our Discipline to approve her for commissioning, providing leadership, not only for our Annual Conference, but our whole denomination. It was a profound disappointment to me last year when the Executive Session of Annual Conference failed to affirm the Board’s recommendation and commission T.C.
I rotated off the Board last year, and was delighted when the new Board affirmed the old Board’s affirmation of T.C.’s gifts and graces for ministry, and I have been anticipating seeing T.C. come before this year’s Annual Conference again to be commissioned. So, again, it was with deep sorrow that I discovered last week that our Board of Ordained Ministry – concerned about recent Judicial Council rulings – reversed itself and chose not to bring T.C.’s name forward.
This, of course, is not a new struggle. Over 30 years ago, when I was in Seminary, I was part of a field education group that included an older man, who was studying for ministry as a second career. I’ll call him Fred. I spent two years in this group with him and our fellow students as we would weekly discuss the joys and challenges of our field education placements and the struggles of living into our new pastoral rolls. Throughout the year, Fred was an incredible gift to all of us in helping us get clarity on our call to the ministry and understand better the things that we do well, and those we don’t. He brought the gift of much greater experience, as well as an astute theological mind and pastoral sensitivity. I came to see him as the best potential pastor in the group.
So it was a jolt when, towards the end of our final year, Fred shared that he had decided to not pursue ordination. He told us that he was gay, with a partner of over 20 years, and that he didn’t see any possibility of a career in ministry that didn’t involve denying who he was, which he was not willing to do. It was heartbreaking to see an incredible gifted pastor decide that he couldn’t live with integrity in our denomination, and I had a very visceral sense that something was wrong.
I have always had a very high view of the authority of Scripture, and this event caused me to dig in deeper to understand the Biblical witness on homosexuality. This process of reconciling my experience of Fred with the Biblical witness was a profoundly Wesleyan one. Like all good Anglicans of his day, John Wesley believed that our understandings of God came primarily through Scripture, which was interpreted through the insights of great thinkers throughout the church’s history (tradition), and integrated through reason, which gives us the tools to examine and organize these insights. But Wesley realized that part of what reason integrated was our own experience of God and how God’s Spirit is at work. My experience with Fred was an invitation to integrate my experience of a gifted, gay pastor with my reading of the Scriptural witness on homosexuality.
The results of that process I have outlinedin a variety of sermons and on a previous blog post. All of which have led me to work hard to change our denomination’s position on this issue throughout my career. Having had the privilege of Chairing the Board, I have a deep appreciation for their hard work, and know how hard it is to develop consensus around a sensitive issue like this; and I have deep respect for the integrity that its members bring to this process. However, I am also deeply saddened by their decision and wish that our Annual Conference would continue to help lead our denomination into the new day that is dawning all around us.
Against all odds T.C. is committed to continuing her journey to ordination. Her faithfulness, and downright tenacity, to our denomination and to her call is humbling. It is an embarrassment to me that a denomination that has helped lead so many fights for equality has been bypassed on this issue by the rest of our society. For a multitude of people like T.C. and Fred who have a divine call on their lives, for the countless young people who are stigmatized and marginalized by their church families, for a society that so desperately needs a voice from the church affirming love, we must do better.