Left Standing at the Church Door

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

Bam. Meeker-Williams couldn't dodge the bullet any longer. Enger and Piombino weren't the only gay or lesbian couples in her church who had been together for a very long time and who wanted to be married. Yet she couldn't honor their request. When she talked to her God, she found she could not go forward. "I still felt very strongly that we could not do for some what we were prohibited from doing for others. It was not just or loving. It's certainly not pastoral."

Special meetings were called on two Sundays in January. The entire congregation was invited. At the end of that, the letter was sent to Bishop Woodrow Hearn.

"We have made a difficult decision. While we understand that the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls for many decisions that are neither easy nor comfortable, we confess that we do prefer ease and comfort. But that does not bring peace," the letter says.

The letter goes on to acknowledge that the church's prohibition against its ministers celebrating homosexual marriages or allowing them to take place in United Methodist churches is "consistent with our legal system."

"This is the norm. It is not loving or just. Its basis is the understanding that gay men and lesbians choose their sexual orientation although there is increasing evidence to the contrary. We understand that sexual orientation is one of the good gifts from our loving Creator."

The letter says that it is rare for nongay people to "stand in solidarity with gay men and lesbians unless this discrimination presents itself through crimes of physical violence, even murder."

"We are no longer willing to perpetuate the unjust and unholy act of offering God's blessing on some while denying this blessing to others. We will no longer be silent; our silence implies agreement and acceptance of this double standard."

Asked what the bishop had to say to the February letter, Meeker-Williams says he has not responded, but that the two of them previously had several conversations about same-sex marriage and he understands her position.

Stephen Russell is the divorced father of three children, brought up in the Roman Catholic Church. He met Ferryn Martin, a Bering church member since 1989, and began attending with her. She sings in the choir.

They got their first warning that there might be a few hurdles to getting married when Meeker-Williams first balked in 1997. But then they thought things had been worked out. So they weren't anticipating problems in late 1998 when they called Meeker-Williams to say they were ready for the ceremony.

All of a sudden, as Stephen puts it, they'd stepped into the center of turmoil in the United Methodist Church.

Ferryn, who came to the church from a more conservative religious upbringing, says what first drew her to Methodism was its inclusiveness. And despite her disappointment, she came to understand the ministers' reluctance to support a "double standard" about its weddings.

Though, as a history teacher, she was uncertain about the method employed to counter church ruling.

"This is not how you do civil disobedience. You break the law and then change things." But she and Stephen and others at the church have come to realize that breaking church law may mean an end to their ministers' presence at Bering.

"It would have been a hollow act," says Stephen, "and the consequences would have been massive to the church."

So, after rejecting one suggestion that they have some streets closed off and have the wedding in front of Bering, Ferryn and Stephen will be married at a Methodist church in Baytown. Bering people will be at the wedding. "They want to be supportive of us," Ferryn says. The ceremony will be conducted by a member of the Bering congregation, an ordained minister who no longer serves in a church.

They're getting married on June 19, Juneteenth, the day on which Texas slaves were emancipated, a date they take no small pleasure in.

Meeker-Williams is not performing any marriage ceremonies anywhere. She says it is the personal decision of her associate ministers whether to officiate at marriage ceremonies elsewhere. But the ban continues on marriages at Bering itself.

Some ministers in several denominations are willing to "bless the unions" of same-sex couples, without performing the marriage ceremony. Asked if she'd considered that, Meeker-Williams says she thinks that is getting by on a technicality. "I want to be faithful and open."

Asked why members of her church who are gay or lesbian and want to be married don't just go to the Unitarian church, which does celebrate same-sex marriages, Meeker-Williams insists, "We are very solidly committed to remaining United Methodists and working to change that decision. We're working for fuller inclusiveness in our church. We think God is calling us to do that."

Whether that same commitment holds for everyone is open to question. Stephen Russell for one doesn't hold it. He is committed to Bering, not Methodism. He sees Bering with its openness as the best possible place in which to raise his children.

Marilyn Meeker-Williams has come to a crisis of conscience. Her resolution of that crisis has far-reaching consequences for herself, her family, her church in Houston and the larger Methodist Church.

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