Left Standing at the Church Door

Bering Methodist stops all weddings if there can't be gay marriages

Go to Bering Memorial United Methodist Church and prepare to be greeted with open arms. Join in the worship. Pray, sing, listen to the sermon, go to Sunday school, get counseling, enjoy the fellowship and go to communion.

But don't count on getting married there. Now or in the next year or the next millennium. Maybe ever. Oh, and it doesn't matter if you join the church or are just visiting.

See, they don't marry people at Bering anymore. Used to, but not now.
Not since lead minister Marilyn Meeker-Williams decided that if the United Methodist Church was telling her she couldn't join same-sex couples in matrimony, she didn't want to officiate at weddings of straight couples either.

Meeker-Williams and her two co-ministers and her congregation talked about it and sent a message to the bishop. Bering has closed its wedding shop at its sanctuary until the church says all people can walk down those aisles and say, "I do." All for one, one for all, or none for all in this case.

For straight church members such as Ferryn Martin and Stephen Russell, that meant they were going to have to hit the road to have the church wedding Ferryn always wanted.

For as much as Ferryn finally came to understand and support Meeker-Williams's position, she decided she didn't want a wedding out on the street under a tent. She didn't want a secular wedding. She wanted to be married in church. "I don't want to be a martyr."

But then, neither does Meeker-Williams. Instead of conducting a gay wedding, as other Methodist ministers have done around the country and then been yanked from their churches, she is opting out of the process.

And perfecting her own special brand of civil disobedience.

Bering Memorial is a 151-year-old church that originated in downtown Houston and served a German-speaking congregation, not changing to English until 1911. It later moved to its Montrose location, and in the 1970s, under minister Ron Pogue (now an Episcopal priest at Christ Church Cathedral downtown), the church began opening its doors to the local population, many of whom were homosexual. It proudly acknowledges both its gay and straight members and has an active AIDS ministry.

Bering is one of five so-called "reconciling" churches in Texas, Methodist churches which go out of their way to welcome gays and lesbians to fully participate in the church.

Meeker-Williams had served at Methodist churches in Baytown and Port Arthur. As time went on, the heterosexual, married mother of three children felt increasingly called to minister at Bering because of its reconciling status, and she told church authorities that. She was appointed in June 1996. In the row of dour black-and-white photographs aligning one wall of the church offices showing previous Bering ministers, hers is the first female face.

She says she loves her ministry at Bering. She stresses that the church and its congregation are members of the United Methodist Church and will remain so. In the last 15 months, the church gained 100 members, and its rolls now stand at 685 people.

But she -- like some other Methodist ministers, like ministers in many denominations -- is struggling with church doctrine on homosexuality. She has a gay son and wants to officiate at his wedding, just as she would be able to do at her daughter's.

"In the fall of '97 I felt clear that I would not want to do any [weddings] if I couldn't do all of them. It's a pastoral thing; you're treating all people the same who come to me for ministry, for pastoral care or for rights of the church, rituals like this."

In September 1997, the Reverend Jimmy Creech, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska, celebrated a union ceremony for a lesbian couple. The following March, he went before a church jury which narrowly acquitted him of disobeying church law. But his bishop did not reappoint him to his church, and Creech has been on leave of absence. And following the Creech trial, which was reported across the country, there was a backlash from those opposed to homosexual marriage in the Methodist Church.

Marriage is not one of the sacraments of the Methodist Church -- that status is reserved for the Eucharist and baptism, Meeker-Williams says, but it is clearly very important.

When she brought up her intention to cease performing marriages in 1997, Meeker-Williams says there was dissension among church members. Those who disagreed with her most strongly were the gay members, she says.

"They said they didn't think that was fair. They didn't want to see us discriminate against straight couples. It was the sense that we don't want to do to straight couples what the church has done to us."

That was exactly the position taken by lesbian Linda Enger, despite the fact she and her companion of 25 years, Eleanora Piombino, hoped to be married on their 25th anniversary at Bering. "I just felt two wrongs didn't make a right," said Enger, although she later changed her mind on this.

Meeker-Williams backed off. Instead, the church ministers decided not to do non-member weddings, but would still perform marriage services for church members. "That just sort of rode along for 13 months," Meeker-Williams says. Until Ferryn and Stephen called her in December 1998.

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