Rejected Pastors Receive ‘Extraordinary Ordination’

November 04, 2008

By Linda Green, UMNS*

Annie Britton and Jenna Zirbel, blocked from ordination as United Methodist ministers because one is a legally married lesbian and the other disagrees with church rules on homosexuality, received "extraordinary ordination" in an ecumenical service at a United Methodist church in Baltimore, Maryland, Oct. 19.
The "ordinations" were called extraordinary because "they went against 'ordinary' policies in the United Methodist Church that deny ordination to otherwise qualified candidates because of sexual orientation or inclusive beliefs," according to the Church Within a Church Movement, sponsors of the service.
Church Within a Church is an organization of Methodists who describe themselves as "dedicated to being the inclusive church." The group chose to hold the service at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church because of its proximity to the birthplace of American Methodism in Baltimore.
During the service, hands were laid on the two women by retired United Methodist Bishops Susan Morrison and Jessie DeWitt, along with leaders from the United Church of Christ, Catholic, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches, and the women's sponsors.
"For too long, selective reading of the Bible has meant that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their supporters have been excluded and punished for their honesty when they reject the 'don’t ask, don’t tell' practices of the church," Morrison said in a press release from Church Within a Church.
Not sanctioned by The UMC
The 2008 General Conference, the top lawmaking body of The United Methodist Church, upheld the church’s stance that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching." The denomination also prohibits ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, said the Baltimore event was not sanctioned by the denomination.
"The Council of Bishops continues to engage in dialogue with many persons of differing opinions on issues of sexuality as we seek to live together in Christian community," Palmer said in an Oct. 28 statement. "While this event certainly creates additional dialogue, it is perhaps not the kind of dialogue that ultimately helps us to move forward as a denomination."
Bishop John R. Schol, who oversees the church's Baltimore-Washington Area, could not be reached for comment.
Years of planning
Cathy Knight, executive director of Church Within a Church, said the group was formed in 2002 to "be the church they wanted the church to be." She said that after years of planning and careful consideration of applicants for "extraordinary ordination," two candidates were approved.
Britton, 53, said she was excluded from ordination because she is gay and legally married to her partner in Massachusetts. The couple now lives in Rhode Island. "After we were married, I knew I could not keep my marriage covenant a secret any more than I could keep my covenant to God’s people a secret," she said.
Zirbel, 53, said she was denied ordination because of her position against the United Methodist stance on homosexuality. "Even though I am straight and my ordination care committee recommended me unanimously, I was denied ordination because I stated my support of gay and lesbian people in the church," she said.
While neither woman is eligible for assignments to lead United Methodist churches under the denomination's Book of Discipline, they plan to seek other jobs within the church or other denominations.
Council of Bishops meeting in Georgia
The Council of Bishops, which is the denomination's top clergy body, is currently meeting (Nov. 2-7) in St. Simons Island, Georgia, and could address the Baltimore event, although officials could not say whether the matter would be discussed. The council includes 69 active and 91 retired bishops from the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines and oversees issues of the church, including pastoral accountability and authority.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.