Three major LGBT faith leader stories greeted us in the new year: the Los Angeles Times did an in-depth profile of a Presbyterian minister who identifies as a “lesbian evangelist,” the Rev. Janie Spahr; two prominent Episcopal priests who are lesbians were married by their Massachusetts bishop; and a gay man from the MCC church will lead the North Carolina Council of Churches.
As Presbyterians vote region-by-region on another constitutional amendment for full equality in their denomination, the voice of the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr was given a powerful platform by the Los Angeles Times. It was picked up by news outlets in Georgia, California, Missouri, North Carolina and Kentucky, and it reached the “most shared news list” with over 500 shares on Facebook. The in-depth article on Rev. Spahr’s life and ministry comes at a moment in the life of the Presbyterian Church USA when the scales are tipping toward full equality. Denominational leaders continue to vote for ordination equality, and the regional Presbyteries are almost equally split on the issue and have yet to ratify the vote that comes to them every two years.
In her years of advocacy, the Rev. Spahr has faced three church trials, each with their series of appeals. Despite these challenges, she continues to serve as a beacon of hope in the Presbyterian Church USA and to all faith traditions. The final appeal is coming up on her most recent trial for officiating the marriages of couples who are lesbian or gay. If she is found guilty of these marriages, which she heartily acclaims, she may be told to ‘cease and desist.’ The Rev. Spahr intends to proceed and resist the “no” of the church because she believes “God's word is a big yes.”
In Boston on January 1 at the Cathedral of St. Paul, Bishop M. Thomas Shaw celebrated the marriage of the Very Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, dean and president of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, and the Rev. Canon Mally Ewing Lloyd, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts canon to the ordinary, which was witnessed by 400 guests. The Episcopal News Service press release noted that it has been a year since Bishop Shaw gave clergy in the diocese permission to solemnize marriages for all eligible couples and that this was his first marriage of a couple who is gay or lesbian.
The Episcopal Church eliminated any restrictions against ordination of priests or bishops who are gay or lesbian in 2008 and voted to encourage clergy to offer a “generous pastoral response” to couples seeking blessings, unions or marriages where they are legal. And, despite intense international pressures, they also authorized a Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to develop liturgies for blessing relationships of gay and lesbian couples. The Arcus Foundation is helping leaders from around the world work on the liturgies through a generous grant. The US based denomination will meet again in 2012 to consider the liturgies as Anglicans in the global mother church struggle to find their way on LGBT equality.
In North Carolina, Stan Kimer, former IBM executive and lay leader in the Metropolitan Community Church, framed his election as president of the North Carolina Council of Churches as part of the growing openness across the country, including in the Southeast. Kimer said, "People are looking more at the merits of a person as an individual, which is something we need more of in this country."
Spokespeople from the Council focused on common values when responding to questions of sexual orientation, but underneath it all, the historic nature of the election looms large. A Change.org article noted that only one other openly gay person has been president of any of the 33 councils of churches across the country.
North Carolina has pockets of progressive people of faith but Kimer’s election happened in a state where the Council of Churches includes Roman Catholic dioceses. The largest religious group in the state, Southern Baptists, are not Council members, and, although Lutheran, Episcopal and Presbyterian denominations have made great strides, there is not unanimity in the ranks. The United Methodist Church has yet to pass inclusive policies, and North Carolina UMC pastors protested the inclusion of the MCC in 1993 by withholding contributions for nine years. The MCC international body has repeatedly been denied membership in the National Council of Churches of Christ, but state chapters are not restricted by that fact.