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Two Austin Churches Move Toward Inclusion

First United Methodist and St. David's Episcopal move towards LGBT inclusion

By Brandon Watson, Fri., March 8, 2013

The Rev. John Wright and the Rev. Barbara Ruth of First United Methodist Church
The Rev. John Wright and the Rev. Barbara Ruth of First United Methodist Church
Photo by Jana Birchum

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 UMC's Book of Discipline. Although First United isn't the first Austin church to elect to join the RMN, they are the largest – and considered by many to be the denomination's "bedrock" Austin church.

The vote pits First United in opposition to the national church. Last May, the United Methodist Church voted to confirm language saying "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" at its annual convention in Tampa. The Book of Disci­pline, the official doctrine of the denomination, condemns homosexuality as sin. Clergy are banned from  blessing 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 they say 'I'm gay and living with someone,' then the church cannot disqualify them."

The struggle for full acceptance is familiar to activists within the Episcopal Church, which has only very recently achieved a more comprehensive equality. As early as 1976, the denomination officially stated that homosexuals were worthy of pastoral care, but the choice to bless same-sex unions was not offered to clergy until 2009. In 2012, the church's general convention approved the first trial liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions – put into practice a couple of weeks ago in Austin with Texas' first official Episcopal same-sex blessing.

The word "blessing" is purposeful. According to St. David's Episcopal rector, the Rev. David Boyd, the denomination would "prefer not to be in the marriage business." While he notes that the "separation of church and state goes out the window" in heterosexual unions, their "primary interest is in blessing relationships. These rites were done through the national church responding to the pastoral needs of beloved members of the church."

Although Boyd speaks of the blessing in matter-of-fact terms, he was aware of the potential for backlash. St. David's hired extra security for the event to make sure no protestors marred the day – fortunately, it wasn't needed. The members of the church were also largely supportive of Boyd's choice. "We do not want to be a liberal church or a conservative church," he said. Parishioners "worship side by side with people who do not share their views."

First United's move towards LGBT inclusion carried a little more risk; indeed, the church lost 10 member families over the decision to join the RCM. But LGBT inclusion is a matter of conscience for Wright. His own involvement with church equality was inspired by meeting a gay man involved in a long-term relationship with his partner. 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 abolition, suffrage, and civil rights movements. Following the sermon, LGBT inclusivity became a passion for both Wright and his wife and co-pastor, the Rev. Barbara Ruth.

For now, First United is working from within. "We are not prepared at this point to break church law in terms of performing blessings of same-sex unions," Wright said. "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."

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