Two United Methodist ministers officiated a same-sex marriage in Charlotte, North Carolina, over the weekend, publicly violating their denomination’s ban on such unions and demanding LGBT equality within the church.
On Saturday, Rev. Val Rosenquist and Bishop Melvin Talbert oversaw the union of John Romano and Jim Wilborne at First United Methodist Church in Charlotte, where they are members. The men, both in there 50s, have been together more than 5 years, and all accounts of the union say that it was joyous affair.
But as the celebrations subsided and the newlyweds left the church, the tone suddenly shifted: local news outlets noted that the United Methodist Church (UMC) forbids same-sex marriages in its Book of Discipline, referring to homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” In other words, both pastors could face church sanctions — including being stripped of their ministerial credentials — simply for overseeing the legal same-sex wedding.
For Rosenquist and her co-officiant, though, celebrating the union was worth the risk.
I believe the UMC official policy has been one of insult and one of oppression and discrimination.
“As an ordained pastor, one of the things that I promised to do was care for my people,” she said. “Pastoral care means providing the resources of the church for their spiritual development and their claiming of the faith — and marriage is claiming this gift of the love of God. How could one deny that?”
“Seriously, I’ve never done a wedding when two people were more appreciative that they could get married in a church,” she added. “It puts a whole different light on doing a wedding.”
The controversial wedding comes just two weeks before the UMC’s General Conference, when delegates from the denomination will meet in Portland, Oregon to vote on a host of issues including same-sex marriage. Rosenquist noted that the high-profile nature of the wedding was intentional, explaining that for her and Talbert — a storied civil rights activist who once shared a jail cell with Martin Luther King, Jr. — it was important to perform the ceremony publicly in hopes of influencing the coming vote.
“I believe the UMC official policy has been one of insult and one of oppression and discrimination.” she said. “That’s not who we are as a denomination and that needs to be corrected. This was a time for me to stand up for what I believe in, and what I was taught in the Bible — in Micah 6:8, where it tells us to ‘do justice,’ and, in the New Testament, where it says to ‘love our neighbors in ourselves.’”
Rosenquist said that her church, which has been affirming of LGBT people for decades, recently took steps to cement its formal support for equality. It became a “reconciling congregation” in 2014 — or openly accepting of LGBT people — and this past August the church’s board approved a measure allowing same-sex couples to be married in their sanctuary, regardless of whether or not the denomination approves. Romano and Wilborne were the first to sign up.
I would do whatever I need to do to provide pastoral care for my people.
That kind of brazen endorsement of inclusivity may sound unusual to some, but the wedding is actually the latest instance in a decades-long fight to bring LGBT equality to the UMC. The most recent wave of activism began in 2013, when Methodist minister Rev. Frank Schaefer was defrocked for officiating his son’s same-sex union (he was eventually reinstated in 2014). Since then, some pro-LGBT bishops have refused to try cases reprimanding pastors for officiating same-sex weddings, large groups of ministers have presided over same-sex unions as a show of solidarity, and one Methodist minister who was sanctioned for overseeing his lesbian daughter’s wedding has vowed to sleep in a tent out in the cold until the church reverses its stance. Meanwhile, LGBT clergy members, most of whom have hid their sexuality for years, are taking bolder steps: In January, Methodist minister Rev. Cynthia Meyer delivered a sermon to her congregation in which she came out as a lesbian, proudly revealing that she is in a relationship with another woman.
The movement has given birth to a number of pro-LGBT activist groups within the church such as Reconciling Ministries Network, which is hoping to galvanize pro-LGBT faithful ahead of General Conference. And unlike vocal but small equality movements in evangelical Christian communities, support for same-sex marriage among American Methodists is the norm: A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 53 percent of all U.S. Methodists — both evangelical and mainline — said they backed same-sex marriage, and a similar 2015 survey found that solid 67 percent of mainline Methodists support such unions.
The UMC is a global body, however, and equality advocates have privately voiced anxiety over whether conservative delegates from other parts of the world will skew the vote. In addition, even Rosenquist admitted that she understood why other pro-LGBT UMC clergy would be cautious about performing a union like she did, since doing so could bring their ministry career to a halt.
But when was asked if she would oversee another same-sex marriage, Rosenquist hinted that her support for LGBT equality wasn’t dependent on the consent of the UMC. For her, marrying two men was an act of faith, and part of her duty as a pastor.
“I would do whatever I need to do to provide pastoral care for my people,” she said.