New World Outlook
The Rev. John Wright knows the church has a PR problem with the LGBT community. "For many people, the only image they have of Christianity is the hateful churches that get press. I think the church is aware that we have a lot of sins to atone for."
For Wright and his First United Methodist Church, the first step is joining the Reconciling Ministries Network -- a national group working to change the exclusionary LGBT language in the UCM's Book of Discipline. Although First United isn't the first Austin church of to elect to join RMN, they are the largest -- and are considered by many to be the denomination's "bedrock" Austin church.
The vote pits First United in opposition to the position of the national church. Last May, the United Methodist Church confirmed language stating “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” at its annual convention in Tampa. The Book of Discipline, the written doctrine of the denomination, condemns homosexuality as sin. Clergy are forbidden to bless same-sex unions and “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” are barred from ordination. Wright describes the policy as "a little like 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'" Unless someone says, 'I'm gay and living with someone' then the church cannot disqualify them.”
Wright's own involvement with LGBT equality within the church was inspired by meeting a gay man involved in a long-time relationship. It pained Wright that he "could not offer the couple the blessing, support, and encouragement" of the church. That meeting led to a sermon titled "Jesus Said Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me." For Wright, that message meant "standing up for a cause that you're willing to take the consequences of," citing the abolitionist, suffragist, and civil rights movements. Following the sermon, inclusivity became a passion for both Wright and his wife and co-pastor, the Rev. Barbara Ruth.
For now, the church is working within the framework of church law. "We are not prepared at this point to break church law in terms of performing blessings of same sex unions." Wright explains "that would subject the church to disciplinary actions and I could lose my credentials. But we are working hard to change church law. That doesn’t mean that we are adopting a policy of anything goes sexually –- but we want to do for gay and lesbian people what we do for straight people.”