Members of Westport’s United Methodist Church seldom agree on what time to start the coffee hour, laughs Rev. Edward Horne.
But last Sunday, an overwhelming 95% of the congregation voted to become a “Welcoming Church.” Disagreeing with the denomination’s official stance on homosexuality, the Weston Road church pledges “the full access to our rituals and sacraments” — including marriage — “to all persons and families.” That means gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people too.
Rev. Horne, and virtually all of his congregants, could not be prouder.
“Our church has not changed who we are,” says Jerry Eyster, chair of the Church Council. “We simply formalized our status, publicly extending a hand to all God’s children. If you love God and all your neighbors, then give us your hand.”
The vote was a long time coming, Rev. Horne admits.
Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has stated, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Church teaching.” It prohibits pastors from performing same-sex marriages, and churches from hosting them.
Every 4 years, Rev. Horne says, there is a divisive church debate about the issue. The wording has not been changed, but for 20 years or so local churches have been saying, “We beg to differ.”
Last November, spurred by a couple of events — the potential trial of Dr. Thomas Ogletree (retired dean of Yale Divinity School who presided over the wedding of his gay son), and a similar case in Pennsylvania in which a pastor was defrocked — the Westport church created a committee. Its charge was to lead members through a “discernment process.”
After much education and study — “people are always surprised that there are only 6 references to homosexuality in the Bible, and Jesus never mentioned it,” Rev. Horne notes — the “welcoming church” question was put to the ballot.
It wasn’t even close.
“People realize Jesus welcomed people of all kinds — including those who may be different from the ‘Westport demographic,'” Rev. Horne says.
The Welcoming Statement reads in part:
We affirm the sacred worth of all of God’s children and welcome people of all ages, races, abilities, sexual orientations and economic circumstances to join us in the membership, participation and leadership of our church.
Rev. Horne adds, “We don’t ask everyone to think alike. We ask them to love alike. Though we attempt in all ways to be loyal Methodists, there comes a point when obedience to the Gospel supersedes obedience even to the rules of the Church. We do not say this lightly, but we believe God is leading us to extend a loving welcome to those who too often have been excluded or marginalized by the church.”
In practical terms, little will change. The New York Conference, and its bishop, are “progressive” about LGBT issues, Rev. Horne says. The Westport church is the 14th — out of 500 or so in the region — to take an affirming stand.
The challenge now, according to Rev. Horne, is to “live up to” its pledge, and show that its message of inclusion is also reality.
So has any couple asked the pastor to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony?
“Not yet,” Rev. Horne says. “We’re just getting the word out. But I’m ready!”