Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The reappointment of a Baltimore pastor who underwent a sex-change operation is forcing local Methodists to grapple with a new issue: What to do when clergy begin their careers as one sex, then switch to the other?

The issue came to a head last week when the Rev. Drew Phoenix, 48, pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in north Baltimore, asked to have his appointment extended through a second four-year term. Clergy appointments are routinely reviewed at annual conferences such as last week’s gathering of the Baltimore-Washington Conference (BWC) at the Wardman Park Hotel in the District.

But Mr. Phoenix’s case was a bit unusual; when he had first taken on the pastorate of St. John’s almost five years ago, he was Ann Gordon. About a year ago, he legally changed his name and announced he would undergo a medical transformation from female to male with an operation, which has been performed, and ongoing hormonal treatments.

“As I continue to transition, to fully claim myself as a male, I find myself coming home to the child God created me to be,” Mr. Phoenix told Methodist delegates on Thursday. “I find myself joyful, whole and peaceful. And I find myself even more effective as a pastor.”

Membership has quadrupled at his 50-member congregation since he arrived, he added, donations are up, and several new ministries have begun.

“It is my intention and hope that, by sharing my story … we will commit ourselves to becoming educated about the complexity of gender and gender identity and open ourselves to those in our congregations who identify as transgender,” Mr. Phoenix said.

In an interview, he said delegates at the conference gave him a standing ovation.

“Even people who didn’t agree with me thanked me for sharing my story,” he said. “They said we need to have this conversation.”

“By all appearances, he is serving very effectively,” said Wayne DeHart, director of human resources for the BWC, “and the people of his church have been very supportive.”

The United Methodist Church has no official position on the issue and its Book of Discipline does not prohibit transsexual clergy from serving in the pulpit.

United Methodist Action, a group affiliated with the Institute on Religion and Democracy, says it plans to introduce legislation on the topic at the 2008 Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

“The decision to reappoint the former Reverend Gordon to St. John’s Church in Baltimore, with no wider discussion in the church, sets a troubling precedent,” said Mark Tooley, director of UMAction. “Once again, liberal church elites, presiding over dwindling churches, are making decisions without regard for historic Christian teaching or a wider consensus among the church’s membership.”

Meanwhile, the BWC, a consortium of 689 churches in the District, parts of West Virginia, central and Western Maryland, has posted frequently asked question on transgender issues on its Web site (www.bwcumc.org).

After Mr. Phoenix’s appointment was renewed, his case was voted on by a closed session of 350 to 400 clergy at the conference. The Rev. Kevin Baker, pastor of Oakdale Emory United Methodist Church in Olney, asked for further interpretation of church law from by BWC Bishop John Schol in the next 30 days. The bishop’s decision will be reviewed by the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council, which meets in October in San Francisco.

This is not the first time the conference has dealt with the issue. In 1999, the Rev. Richard Zamostny, pastor of a Methodist church in Rockville, left his wife and three children to have a sex-change operation. He reapplied to be a minister as Rebecca Steen and her credentials were accepted by then BWC Bishop Felton May. But he resigned from the ministry in 2002 after several complaints were filed against him, including one from his former church secretary.

There are a few other cases of transsexual clergy in mainline Protestantism. In 1996, the Rev. Erin Swenson, a minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) living in Atlanta, became the first mainline Protestant pastor to change sexes while remaining an ordained minister.

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